Rachmaninov: The Bells (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. Warner Classics 50999 9 84519 2 0.

The first and presumably main attraction here is Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) The Bells, a choral symphony the composer wrote in 1913, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name. In Poe’s poem the poet was experimenting with sound, using onomatopoeia, the imitation of sounds of real life through the sounds of words. Thus, if you read an onomatopoetic poem like “The Bells” aloud, you would be able to hear the sounds of various bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and mournful death knells. Accordingly, that’s the way Rachmaninov set up his symphony--in four movements, with a choir to sing the words along with the orchestra. It became one of the composer’s favorite pieces. To me, however, it seems rather to defeat Poe’s purpose to do the work orchestrally; I mean, you can have real bells with an orchestra. But I suppose that’s beside the point. It’s fascinating music, and Sir Simon Rattle has a delightful time with it.

Rattle also has the advantage over most other conductors of this work in that he has the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic at his disposal. The ensemble sounds gorgeous, as always, leaving no doubt in a listener’s mind that it’s one of the world’s great orchestras.

Anyway, like Poe's poem, the music of Rachmaninov’s The Bells starts out lightly and cheerfully with the sleigh bells ("The Silver Sleigh Bells") of youth and works its way through life gradually to the dark, forbidding, yet ultimately comforting bells of death ("The Mournful Iron Bells"). Rattle handles each segment of what Poe called "tintinnabulation" gracefully, tunefully, and colorfully. This is one of Rachmaninov's most expressive pieces of the music, perhaps why he liked it so much himself, and Rattle's way with it is playful when necessary, gentle, exciting, and then menacing, sorrowful, and peacefully uplifting at the end. Rattle never goes out his way to emphasize the Dies irae (“Day of Wrath” or Judgment Day) motif that so often insinuates itself into Rachmaninov's music, nor does he disguise it. With Rattle it simply exists as an integral part of the music. Overall, this is one of the best performances of The Bells I've heard, one of the most thoughtful and subtle, with no undue sensationalizing.

Insofar as concerns the coupling, it’s Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which the composer wrote late in life (premiering the music in 1941, just a year or two before his death). Initially, he intended the Dances as a part of a ballet project that fell through. The three dances in the suite have been in the repertoire ever since, and the public probably knows them as well as they know anything the composer wrote.

Among previously available recordings, I’ve always liked Andre Previn’s account with the London Symphony on EMI, which has long stood the test of time; Eiji Oue’s rendering with the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference Recordings, which is without a doubt the best recorded version you’ll find; and Vasily Petrenko’s more-recent realization with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for its sheer energy. While it probably isn’t the best idea to compare different interpretations to one another because each one will have its fair share of valid interpretive points, I can’t help enjoying some recordings more than others. In this case, I can’t say I liked Rattle’s version better than my previous favorites. Let me explain.

With Rattle and the Symphonic Dances we have a different story from The Bells. Rattle is one of the most civilized conductors in all of music, and he seems to be getting more understated as he gets older. I'm one of those guys who actually liked Rattle's work more with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra back in the Eighties and Nineties than with the Berlin Philharmonic, despite the Berliners being the richer, more-opulent ensemble. Rattle seemed to me more spontaneous back then, more youthfully energetic and exuberant. Which is what I sense lacking in these Symphonic Dances. They sound too civilized.

Rattle's approach to the Dances seems too cultured, too refined to me. There is neither the imagination Previn injected into them nor the sheer adrenaline rush Petrenko provided. What's more, Warner Classics didn't provide them the kind of all-out sonic splendor that we hear from Reference Recordings. So what we have from Rattle is an elegant set of Symphonic Dances that doesn't quite get the blood to pounding the way other conductors have done. Still, it's a finely polished performance and one that may well appeal to listeners seeking such an interpretation. Certainly, Rattle makes the most of the sinuously lyrical second movement, has a pleasingly relaxed manner with the alto solo and waltz tunes, and again never flaunts the Dies irae ostentatiously in the final dance.

There is no one and only "right" way to deal with any score, after all, and Rattle's graceful, intellectual rendition of the Symphonic Dances makes a welcome addition to the catalogue, whether I happen to love it or not.

As is their usual practice with most Simon Rattle Berlin recordings, Warner Classics (formerly EMI) made it during live concerts, these from 2010 and 2012. While the sound of these live affairs is never bad, it can’t quite match in naturalness what the engineers can do without an audience. The producer in this case was Christoph Franke and the engineer Rene Moeller, and they do their best with an audience present, and the sound they obtain doesn't appear as close as it sometimes can be in such affairs. There's a wide stereo spread, although orchestral depth suffers a tad, and vocals can be bright, sometimes piercing, especially in massed voices. Lows appear reasonably well extended, particularly in bass drum and organ passages; the midrange is a little too warm and soft for my taste; but treble notes glisten believably. Oddly, too, there were times when I thought the engineers might have intentionally clamped down on the dynamics too much, restricting the range a bit more than absolutely necessary. Or so it sounded to me.

Most important to the sonics, there is little or no sense of the audience's presence in the recording, which I count as a good thing. There is no obvious breathing or coughing, shuffling of feet, or handling of programs from the audience. And even better, there is no burst of applause at the end of each number to distract one from the listening experience. I attend live symphonic concerts two or three times a month and enjoy them immensely, but when I'm home I recognize it's a different occasion; I want the sound to emulate that of a real concert hall all right, yet without the intrusive noises of people around me. While this latest recording from Simon Rattle does not match the best audio reproduction I've heard from the Berlin Philharmonic, for a live recording it sounds OK.


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

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 31 and 38 (SACD review)

Josef Krips, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. PentaTone Classics SACD 5186 119.

Now, this is the way I remember Philips recordings and the Concertgebouw sounding years ago in their glory days. Way back before digital processing and before Chailly and Decca had picked up the Concertgebouw Orchestra, there was this wonderful resonant ambiance that gave the ensemble a golden glow. The old Concertgebouw recordings, like this one, were little gems that shone radiantly in the world of classical music. It’s nice to have some of them back more radiant than ever.

From time to time I’ve mentioned that during the early 1970’s when Quadraphonic sound was a short-lived rage, companies like Philips experimented with the technique but never actually issued much of it in anything but straight two-channel stereo. Then, some thirty years later with the advent of SACD multichannel capability, PentaTone Classics began re-releasing a number of Philips’s old four-channel recordings on hybrid stereo/multichannel discs, meaning a person could play them back in two channels or four or five channels, depending on one’s equipment and one’s preference.  PentaTone re-released the current issue in 2003.

I played the Mozart from the SACD stereo layer in my regular two-channel system, and it sounded terrific. Very clean, very smooth, and, most happily, very glowing and ambient, better than I ever recalled hearing the recording before, perhaps because PentaTone remastered both the multichannel and stereo layers. I would imagine the ambient bloom I’m referring to would show up even better being reinforced by some subtle surround information in the rear channels. Incidentally, the Philips recordings were originally miked in four channels, not five or five-point-one, so that’s the way PentaTone have preserved them.

As far as the music is concerned, it’s lovely. Josef Krips was a consummate Mozartian of the old school, and his performances of Symphony No. 31 “Paris” and and No. 38 “Prague” are bouncy, charming, traditional, but reasonably impassioned, too. There is no stuffiness about them, especially not the little “Paris” Symphony, and they come across most lovingly. Compared to the several rival recordings I had on hand--Barenboim, Klemperer, Mackerras--Krips loses something, perhaps, in overall character, appearing a bit plainer than the others. However, one should not consider this a drawback, and Krips’s traditional approach should appeal to those listeners seeking conventional yet affectionate interpretations. There is no lack of warmth or enchantment in these performances for all their straightforwardness.

If there is any drawback to the disc at all, it’s that many of Krips’s recordings in regular stereo are available at a much lower cost, if not in as clean sound. But if it’s multichannel you’re looking for or the best possible Krips in two-channel, this is a fine route to take.


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

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (CD review)

Also, Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 22. Ray Chen, violin; Christoph Eschenbach, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra. Sony 88765447752.

This disc has a lot of good things going for it. First, Mozart wrote the material, always a good sign. Second, young Taiwanese violinist Ray Chen, who has won numerous awards and made several well-received albums for Sony, does a splendid job with the music. Third, we have the renowned pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach along with the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra accompanying Chen. And fourth, the Sony engineers do a fine job with the sound.

Of course, the question with any album like this, no matter how good it may be, is, Do I need another one? Presumably, most classical-music fans already have one or more favorite recordings of Mozart’s violin concertos, so is it worth investing in yet another one just to see how it measures up? Which is why reading multiple reviews of new recordings comes in handy and, one also assumes, why you are reading this particular review today. Well, I’ll tell you in advance that this reviewer found Mr. Chen’s performances quite good. However, for my own money, I’m not sure I would invest in yet another recording when I already own excellent renditions from the likes of Mutter (DG, JVC, and EMI), Grumiaux (Philips), St. John (Ancalagon), and Oistrakh (EMI). But that’s just me; I haven’t a lot of money to spend on experimentation. For collectors who do have plenty to spend, however, and certainly for the many admirers of Ray Chen the disc seems a worthy investment.

Anyway, Chen starts the program with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, which Mozart wrote along with all five of his violin concertos in Salzburg in 1775 when he was only nineteen years old. Mozart was more of a piano guy, so he didn’t take the violin concerto very far before he died. Nevertheless, because he died relatively young, who knows what he may have done with the genre had he lived another thirty or forty years. In any case, No. 3 is fairly typical of the form, with an Allegro, an Adagio, and a closing Rondeau Allegro. It is not particularly adventurous, but it is Mozart, which means it’s always charming. Besides, despite Mozart’s age when he composed these things, he was a prodigy, a musical genius who had been composing since his early childhood. In terms of their development and maturity, therefore, the violin concertos are more like the work of a man twice Mozart’s years.

Chen seems more in tune with the lyrical qualities of Mozart than he was in a previous recording I reviewed of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, where he seemed more relaxed than dramatic or exciting. In both instances, though, Chen shows a terrific command of the instrument, his virtuosity never in question. But in the present Mozart, his perhaps natural penchant for understatement serves the music pretty well. Chen maintains a light touch on the strings, helping the concerto to bounce along with plenty of vim and vigor, yet not so fast that it loses any delicacy. I still don't think he throws himself into the music with the passion and enthusiasm of Anne-Sophie Mutter, but he does display a good range of emotions. There is an especially deep sense of pathos in the Adagio, where Chen seems most at home. There is also a delightful spirit to the final movement, where Chen's lyrical treatment of the faster sections elevates it above the ordinary.

Probably the single most outstanding characteristic of all the music on the album, though, is the sound of Chen's violin, a 1702 Stradivarius, the "Lord Newlands." It has a rich, fresh, effervescent tone that combined with Chen's fluid playing is quite easy to like. Or love, as the case may be.

The Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218 is in the same fast-slow-fast structure as No. 3: Allegro, Andante cantabile, and Rondeau (Andante grazioso - Allegro ma non troppo). Despite its classical structure, the Fourth Concerto is more romantic and sinuous than the Third, and Chen makes the most of it. The Fourth may also be more familiar to listeners than the Third, which means listeners may have more predetermined conceptions about it. In any case, Chen retains the better part of the work's wit and sparkle, keeping the often capricious music flowing evenly. Still, I missed the degree of impetuosity found in some competing versions, leading me again to appreciate Chen's handling of the concerto's slow movement more than his work in the outer movements, as good as they are.

Now, call me an old fuddy-duddy (OK, you're an old fuddy-duddy), but I enjoyed the accompanying Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 22 in A major, K 305 best of all on the program. Here, Chen again shares the spotlight with Mr. Eschenbach, this time with Eschenbach on piano. Although this is primarily Chen's album, the Sonata rather favors the piano as much as the violin, particularly in the longer second movement. Even though the engineers appear to do what they can to emphasize the violin, Eschenbach's piano part is really what carries the piece. Be what may, the two performers together create a sweet, cheerful, bubbly concoction that foreshadows the work of Schubert a few years later.

Producer Florian B. Schmidt and balance engineer Aki Matusch recorded the album for Sony Music Entertainment at Christkirche Rendsburg-Neuwork, Germany in July 2013. The sound they obtained is ultra clear and clean due in part, I'm sure, to some relatively close miking. The clarity comes at the expense of some orchestral depth in the concertos, but for many listeners it might be a fair trade-off. The violin tone sounds natural enough, with a pleasant bloom on the strings, and the whole affair is reasonably smooth as well, with only the tiniest evidence of hardness on occasion.


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

Alexandre Tharaud: Autograph (CD review)

Bis-Encores. Alexandre Tharaud, piano. Erato 50999 934137 2 5.

French pianist Alexandre Tharaud has an extensive discography consisting of dozens of albums covering almost every major composer for the piano, including Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie, Schubert, and a host of others but, oddly, no Beethoven. On this 2013 album Tharaud presents twenty-three short selections by various noted composers but, again, no Beethoven. He says the album, called Autograph and which he subtitles Bis-Encores, is a collection of music that sums up his repertoire and his career. Fair enough.

So, the album comprises mostly light, airy, Romantic, ethereal piano music. Maybe Tharaud sees himself as the gentle, thoughtful, sensitive type. It’s certainly not a bad way to go; although it doesn’t make the for the most-exciting of programs, it makes for beautiful listening, and Tharaud is as good at it as anyone could be at it. The material is light, airy, Romantic, and ethereal, as is the playing.

Let me give you a few examples. Tharaud begins the program with the Prelude in B minor by Bach, in an arrangement by Alexander Siloti. It has a beautifully straightforward simplicity that Tharaud executes with care. It's contemplative music at its best.

Next is the Romance sans paroles No. 3, Op. 17 by Gabriel Faure. It is lovely in its graceful lines, which Tharaud characterizes with loving care. After that is a bit of a pick-me-up with Rameau's rondo piece Les Sauvages, one of the livelier tunes on the album. Then there's Gluck's popular Dance of the Blessed Spirits, again arranged for piano by Siloti, in which Tharaud conveys a sweet and untroubled peace.

And so it goes, each little work a shining gem and, for the most part, a quiet oasis for relaxation and thought. Of course, there are also a few things like Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor No. 2, Op. 3, which in Tharaud's hands is not only powerful and dynamic but noble and exciting.

Lots of favorites: The ones I've already mentioned and also Chopin's Minute Waltz, always welcome; Saint-Saens's The Swain, always delightful; Chabrier's Feuillet d'album and Bizet's Adagietto, both enchanting; Poulenc's aptly named Melancolie; and Satie's seductively odd little Gymnopedie No. 3.

Tharaud closes the program with piece by Bach, the Andante from his Concerto in B minor, arranged for piano by Mr. Tharaud. It has a calm, tranquil tone reminiscent of Beethoven's later Moonlight Sonata, and Tharaud’s handling of it easily points up the similarities.

The fact is, Tharaud never attempts to dazzle the listener with his technical virtuosity. I suspect it's a case of been there, done that. Here, he is only trying to reveal a part of himself in music he loves and, obviously, loves to play. It is an enjoyable package.

Erato producer and balance engineer Cecile Lenoir recorded the music at the Salle Colonne, Paris, in 2013. The piano sounds warm and cozy, with a pleasing resonant bloom on the notes. Mr. Tharaud appears to be in a spacious environment miked from a moderately close distance. The results are clear yet rounded, detailed yet smooth and natural. It's a sound that appropriately fits the nature of the music.

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


Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Natasha Paremski, piano; Fabien Gabel, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RPO SP 044.

Even though I’ve spent many years looking over the monthly release lists for almost all the major record companies and their distributors and received a considerable heap of product for review, it always surprises me how little I know about who’s who and who’s doing what in the music industry. Maybe I’m just dense, or maybe it’s just too hard to keep up with the ever-changing face of the classical music world. In any case, I admit that when the present disc arrived, I did not recognize the name of young Russian-born American pianist Natasha Paremski. After hearing the album, that has certainly changed. She is a talent to be reckoned with, a bright and upcoming star who can hold her own in the company of any pianist. Nor did I recognize the relatively young French conductor Fabien Gabel, currently the Music Director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra. Hopeless, I know I am. Well, at least I was able to identify London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham’s old ensemble, so I guess I’m not a complete loss.

Maybe it was a part of his Russian temperament, I don’t know that, either, but Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) never seemed satisfied with much of his work, including his popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. He finished it in 1875, revising it in 1879 and again in 1888. It’s possible the composer was just overly sensitive to the criticism that came before and after the concerto’s première, or possibly he didn’t care for the way the first performers played the piece. Who knows. On this disc Ms. Paremski plays the Concerto with Maestro Gabel and the RSO, and I can’t help thinking the composer would have been happy with the results.

Many of the biggest, most-popular piano concertos, the ones from Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov, for instance, have a brawny quality about them that might at first blush seem best suited to a masculine performer. However, Martha Argerich among other female pianists pushed that idea aside long ago. I doubt that anyone could accuse Ms. Paremski of not being strong enough in her presentation, which gets off to a grand, bravura start and never lets up. As important, she is able to lend a poise and refinement to the softer moments, something lacking in many competing recordings.

Ms. Paremski handles the second-movement Andantino with a quiet grace and then in the finale goes out with a burst of passion and fire. It may not be the absolute most attention-getting performance ever committed to disc, but Ms. Paremski does everything right, everything one could ask of her in this music, without ever drawing attention to herself with any undue bravura despite her obvious virtuosic piano skills. The performance is fun, exciting, intense, Romantic, and well recorded.

Coupled to the Tchaikovsky we find the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Tchaikovsky predicted that Rachmaninov would be his logical successor, and surely Rachmaninov's symphonies and piano concertos, as well as the Rhapsody prove Tchaikovsky's prescience correct. Again, we find the Paremski, Gabel, RSO combo at the top of their game, producing an affectionate yet red-blooded account of the score. If anything, Ms. Paremski is even more joyously enthusiastic in the Rachmaninov than in the Tchaikovsky.

What's more, Maestro Gabel's conducting supports Ms. Paremski admirably, never upstaging her or her role in the music making, and the RPO play with their usual elegance, producing a rich accompaniment that impeccably complements the performances.

Producer Andrew Walton of K&A Productions and engineer Mike Clements recorded the music at Henry Wood Hall, London in December 2012. The sound is as big and bold as the music. There is a very wide frequency range involved and even wider dynamics. The perspective is somewhat close, yet it's also smooth and natural, with a fine sense of orchestral depth and bloom. Although the piano looms a bit large, to be sure, it also displays a sweet, resonant warmth. Occasionally one notices a slight stridency in the upper strings, but it isn't intrusive. Like the performances, the sound is lush without ever being gushy or sentimental.


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

Britten & Holst: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 62616 2.

Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Thomas Beecham, and Leopold Stokowski in the late Fifties and Sixties. Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, and Bernard Haitink in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and beyond. And then, too, there was Andre Previn and in the late Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. I’m not sure many of us realized at the time that we were experiencing some kind of golden age of recorded stereo music. I know I didn’t. Looking back, these men are now among my favorite conductors, and they produced some of my favorite recordings. Thank goodness for CD’s and our ability to preserve their legacy.

The selections on this EMI “Great Recordings of the Century” disc represent some of Previn and the London Symphony’s very best work. From English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-76) come his Sinfonia da Requiem, “Four Sea Interludes,” and “Passacaglia”; and from English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) come his Perfect Fool ballet and “Egdon Heath,” all of the music recorded between 1973 and ‘74.

Of the bunch, it’s the “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera Peter Grimes that stand out for me. Beautifully recorded and colorfully rendered, these short tone pictures were long a reference standard in the LP days. Although EMI had released them on CD before (at the time coupled with Britten’s Spring Symphony), the company (now Warner Classics) remastered them in 2003 using EMI’s “Abbey Road Technology,” and they sound smoother and more revealing than ever.

For anyone who likes, say, French composer Claude Debussy’s La Mer or English pastoral music in general, Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” (“Dawn,” “Sunday Morning,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm”) are a must, a beautiful evocation of the sea, the sky, the mist, the coastline, and nature. Previn perfectly judges the pace for each section and creates vivid little symphonic pictures. The Sinfonia da Requiem may be quite a bit heavier, but it sounds so well recorded, it’s worth a listen. In contrast, the Holst ballet music from The Perfect Fool is light and festive, and Previn makes it a delight.

Then, the disc concludes with Holst’s somber tone poem “Egdon Heath,” a moody affair depicting a passage from Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native that describes the apparently desolate moor. Holst said this work was “his finest achievement.” Perhaps so, it’s certainly lyrical and poetic in Previn’s hands, but don’t be surprised if it achieves its aim and you find yourself a little depressed.

Again, I can’t say enough for the recorded sound. It is warm and detailed, polished and refined, rounded in all the right, natural ways, yet revealing, too, with a wonderful sense of depth and stereo imaging. Oddly, however, there appeared to my ears a volume imbalance between the Britten and Holst pieces that required I turn down the Holst slightly. Maybe it was just me.


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

Sarasate: Carmen Fantaisie (XRCD24 review)

Also, Zigeunerweisen; Saint-Saens: Havanaise; Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Ruggiero Ricci, violin; Pierino Gamba, London Symphony Orchestra. JVC JVCXR-0227-2.

This disc has “audiophile” written all over it. It features some of the most virtuosic violin music ever written, performed in brilliant style by some of the most-talented players of their era, and recorded in some of the best state-of-the-art Decca sound of the late Fifties. It’s a heady combination, done up in some of today’s best state-of-the-art remastering and transfer techniques. Expensive, but maybe worth every penny.

Spanish violinist and composer Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués (1844-1908) dazzled audiences for decades with his playing and left the rest of us several basic-repertoire violin items performed brilliantly on this disc by violinist Ruggiero Ricci, with Pierino Gamba the London Symphony Orchestra in accompaniment.

Ricci's handling of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy (based, of course, on music from Bizet’s opera) is one of vigor, precision, and sheer brilliance. While Ricci’s version does not display the sultry sensuousness of Perlman's account with Lawrence Foster from a decade or so later, which remains my favorite interpretation, Ricci's reading probably makes a more vivid and more-lasting impression. His sheer virtuosity and showmanship carry the day, making this a classic performance in anyone's book.

Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen ("Gypsy Airs") comes next, with again Ricci reaching for the stars. He imparts plenty of atmosphere and color to the familiar Hungarian violin tunes, making this rendition among the best you'll find anywhere. Similar to the Carmen Fantasy, Zigeunerwisen tends to sound like the collection of bits and pieces that it is, yet what glorious bits and pieces they are, with Ricci making the most of each little showpiece. The violin sounds soulful, mournful, melancholy, bright, exciting, tuneful, and zesty by turns.

Rounding out the album are two works by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921): the Havanaise and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. As with the Sarasate music, they are pieces that show off the skills of the performer, and again Ricci shines in the process with intensely rhythmic playing. Throughout all of the performances, Maestro Pierino Gamba's accompaniment with the LSO demonstrates only the finest collaboration, never upstaging the soloist yet always supportive and sympathetic.

Decca producer James Walker and engineers Alan Reeve and J. Timms recorded the music in September, 1959, at Kingsway Hall, London, the venue for many of Decca’s finest productions. Producer Akira Taguchi, executive producer Kevin Berg, and remastering engineer Alan Yoshida remastered the music in 2004 at Ocean Way Recording, Hollywood, California. The remastering uses XRCD 24-bit super analog processing, K2 super coding, DVD K2 laser, a K2 rubidium clock, and JVC’s extended pit cutting to ensure the best possible audiophile playback. What do you mean, How does it sound?

The remastered audio is extremely lifelike and alive: A fairly close violin, yet one with a rich, lustrous, realistic tone. A good sense of orchestral depth, with wide dynamics and a strong impact. Well-shaped percussion attacks. Quick transient response. Sharply etched yet smoothly rendered definition. And well-extended frequency extremes complete the picture. As I said up front, it's audiophile all the way and an improvement on the sometimes harder, glassier sound of the original Decca release.

Any quibbles? Well, the disc duplicates the original LP, which means there isn't a lot of material on it, about thirty-eight minutes in all. For the price of this audiophile disc, it's short measure, but thought of in terms of pure sensory pleasure, maybe it's a bargain.


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

Should you feel inclined to shop around for the disc, here are a couple of suggestions:

Elusive Disc or

New Year’s Concert 2014 (CD review)

Daniel Barenboim, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony 88843015642 (2-disc set).

As remarkable as it seems to me, another year has gone by. I’d swear that when I received this recording for review, I thought it could not have been but a couple of months since I had reviewed last Vienna New Year’s Concert. It was an entire year. Time flies when you’re enjoying good music.

As you know, the Vienna Philharmonic’s tradition of presenting a New Year’s Concert got started in 1941 and has been going strong ever since. Companies recording the concerts over the past few decades have included EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and Sony. Moreover, in keeping with the orchestra’s tradition of having no permanent conductor, the orchestra invites a different conductor to perform the New Year’s duties each year. These conductors in recent times have included some of the biggest names in the business, including Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Franz Welser-Most, and for 2014 Daniel Barenboim.

Each year the Concert’s producers try for something a little different in the way of programming, with this year’s theme finding, well, some things a little different. Rather than the usual stuff from the Strauss family, we get some little-heard items from Johann Sr., Jr., Eduard, and Josef, plus some music from composers outside the Strauss family: Joseph Hellmesberger, Richard Strauss, Joseph Lanner, even Frenchman Leo Delibes. It makes for a more-varied program than we usually hear in these affairs, and Maestro Barenboim, always the alert musician, brings out the best in them. As does the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic, sounding as rich and resonant as ever, even if the live recording itself is not always up to audiophile standards.

Daniel Barenboim is a fine pianist, of course, but his name first came to my attention as a conductor when he recorded a series of late-Mozart symphonies with the English Chamber Orchestra for EMI in the early Seventies. They remain among my favorite Mozart symphony recordings to this day. Since then, I have admired his lively, no-nonsense approach to conducting, and it shows further in these Sony Classics discs. His New Year’s interpretations are largely free from exaggeration, with only a few appropriate nods to the crowd in the more-famous Strauss Jr. pieces.

Where Barenboim really shines on this album, though, is in the lesser-known material: Eduard Strauss’s Helenen-Quadrille, based on themes by Offenbach; Josef Strauss’s Neckerel (“Teasing”) polka and Friedenspalmen (“Palms of Peace”) waltz, commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War; Strauss Sr.’s Carolinen-Galopp; Hellmesberger’s Vielliebchen Polka francaise; Lanner’s Die romantiker (“The Romantics”); Delibes’s Pizzicati from Sylvia; Richard Strauss’s Mondschelnmusik (“Moonlight Interlude”) from Capriccio; and Strauss Jr.’s  Seid umschlungern, Millionen (“Receive My Embrace, Ye Millions”) waltz, among many more, twenty-one selections in all, plus the annual New Year’s address.

It’s a more-adventurous program than in most years past, yet Barenboim would never let the event go by without providing several must-haves. Not only does he give us a wonderfully sentimental yet atmospheric Tales from the Vienna Woods, but two favorites that seem to be written into the UN Charter that must be performed every year without fail: The Blue Danube waltz and the Radetzky March, the latter closing the show as always with the audience joining in.

One minor quibble: Sony provide no timings for any of the tracks, neither on the outside of the case nor in the booklet insert. For the record, the discs provide fifty-eight and fifty-four minutes of music each, but I would have liked timings for individual selections.

Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and engineers Tobias Lehmann and Rene Moller recorded the concert live at the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins, Vienna, Austria on January 1, 2014. What you have to understand at the outset is that record companies don’t mean these Vienna New Year’s recordings to be audiophile discs. They are documents of a celebration, and the live audience is as much a part of that celebration as the music or the musicians.

The sound this time out is typically close, although it is not so close as it has been in some years, and it’s less bright, hard, and strident. Indeed, the sound is quite smooth and warm, even a little soft, with very strong dynamics. The audience, as I say, is always present, especially between tracks, with applause, coughs, wheezes, and general shuffling of feet. That’s part of the occasion.


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

Britten: Cello Symphony (CD review)

Also, Cello Sonata. Zuill Bailey, cello; Natasha Paremski, piano; Grant Llewellyn, North Carolina Symphony. Telarc TEL-34412-02.

When you have a piece of music by one of the twentieth-century’s most-beloved composers, performed by one of the masters in his field, and recorded by one of the best companies in the business, it’s a combination hard to resist.

English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote his Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 in 1963, dedicating it to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work in 1964 and recorded it for Decca shortly thereafter. Although there have been a number of fine recordings since then, it has been Rostropovich’s disc that has held sway for all these years. Now, cellist Zuill Bailey’s performance with Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony can hold its own among the best of them.

The thing is, however, listeners new to the Cello Symphony and accustomed to Britten’s more-accessible music like The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Simple Symphony, the Spring Symphony, the Bridge Variations, the Violin Concerto, even the music from Peter Grimes may find the later Cello Symphony a bit more difficult. It’s generally darker, coarser, more brooding, and more-modern sounding than most of the composer’s earlier pieces. So, the Cello Symphony never quite found the audience that some of Britten’s earlier work did. Still, there’s much to enjoy, and Bailey plays it effectively.

Britten called it a symphony rather than a concerto because he said he wanted the soloist and orchestra to play more equal parts in the proceedings than they would in a concerto, where the cello might dominate. Moreover, in keeping with a symphony, Britten gave the work a traditional four-movement symphonic structure, even though the final two movements do tend to connect with a cadenza link. It would be Britten's last major orchestral work and one he called "the finest thing I've written."

Anyway, Bailey’s sensitive yet unsentimental, no-nonsense style tends to go well with the character of the Cello Symphony. There's a good measure of gloom in Bailey's performance, the deep, mellow tones of the cello complementing the dark depression of the opening movement. And there's an almost overwhelming sense of depression in Bailey's solidly articulated lines. This might not be a true concerto, but Bailey makes us fully aware who's in charge here.

Next, we get an excitable little scherzo, only a few minutes long, filled with playful but still slightly menacing excursions from the cello. Both Britten and Bailey seem to be having a little fun here. A relatively lengthy Adagio follows, poignant and haunting, to be sure, yet still distressful, particularly in Bailey's deeply impassioned reading.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Passacaglia that ends the symphony does so on a confident, almost happy note. This sounds more like the Britten of old, the strings singing splendidly, the cello sounding a note of optimism, and Bailey bringing the whole affair to a rich, full-bodied, highly satisfactory conclusion.

The accompanying Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 derives from a 1960 meeting Rostropovich had with the composer, during which the cellist pleaded with Britten to write him a sonata. The Sonata is brief, about twenty minutes total, and divided into five movements: Dialogo, Scherzo, Elegia, Marcia, and Moto Perpetua. Pianist Natasha Paremski joins Bailey in a performance that fluctuates between a warm Romanticism and a harsher modernity. The interplay between the two accomplished soloists, especially during the more hushed moments, is quite fetching, and many listeners may find the work more approachable than the Cello Symphony.

Five/Four Productions recorded the Cello Symphony live for Telarc Records at Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina and the Cello Sonata at Clonick Hall Studio, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio, both in 2013.

As we might expect from a live recording, the miking in the Cello Symphony is close, with Bailey's cello dominating the sound field. This provides an extra measure of clarity but at the expense of room ambience and orchestral depth. Nonetheless, the cleanness of the recording, the wide dynamic range, and the strong transient impact compensate somewhat, making for a reasonably satisfying experience. One senses, however, that the audience is always present, not often with outright coughs, wheezes, or rustling of feet or programs but by their very presence, their breathing. Of course, the closeness of the miking also brings out some noises from the instruments and the players that one wouldn't otherwise normally notice, so there's that to consider, too. An unfortunate burst of applause punctuates the end of the performance.

The studio-recorded Sonata projects a more natural sound in terms of instrument positioning and environmental bloom. It makes for a bit more comfortable listening yet can also reflect a healthy dynamic bite.


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

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Werner Haas, piano; Eliahu Inbal, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. PentaTone Classics 5186 114.

For some time now, the PentaTone label has been marketing multichannel SACD’s. About half of these releases are of newly recorded material and about half PentaTone took from the Philips archives, where Philips originally made them during the short-lived “quadraphonic” era of the early 1970’s. Such is the case with the Rachmaninov disc reviewed here, which Philips recorded in 1974.

It’s hard to divorce the sound of this recording from the music, so much are these Rachmaninov pieces wound up in emotional concerns. The sound is wide, warm, and slightly veiled, with a deep bass at one end but a lack of sparkle at the other. It means that pianist Werner Haas’s performance may sound more romanticized by the audio than by his actual playing. In any case, Haas and Inbal produce a sometimes highly charged, mostly broad, laid-back, and Romantic view of the Concerto; it’s all quite sensitive and charming and easy on the ear. Then, they take a slightly more analytical, if highly virtuosic, view of the Rhapsody, the exception being the popular Eighteenth Variation, which comes off with a sweet passion that is hard to resist. As an aside, Mr. Haas died in a car accident a couple of years after making this album; a tragic loss.

The disc is dual layered, providing a two-channel stereo presentation on one layer, playable on any regular CD player, and a two and four-channel presentation on the other, playable only on an SACD player. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer. Although SACD allows for up to five discrete channels and a subwoofer track, PentaTone engineers decided to preserve the original intent of the old recording in four separate channels only. I find that commendable.

I do object, however, to one of their publicity statements. I quote from the disc’s booklet: “The advantages of multichannel recording and reproduction are self-evident:  the sound is much more natural, the resolution is better and the spatial impression is much more convincing than stereo.” To which I can only say, “Perhaps.” The effect in multichannel can be more natural sounding if the engineers used the rear channels for minor ambience enhancement; but the resolution is dependent upon how well the engineers made the recording in the first place. Or maybe they just have a different definition of resolution than I do. I think of audio resolution as a degree of sharpness; maybe they don’t. This recording, as I said above, does not have the best “resolution” I’ve heard, as a comparison to some several rivals, like Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca) or Cliburn/Reiner (RCA), reveals.

However, the disc does display a splendid warmth and a resonant hall ambience, which go a long way toward helping one associate it with a feeling of being in the audience. As for the “spatial impression” being better than stereo, that, too, may be dependent upon how well the engineers made the recording and how well set up and balanced one’s 5.1 multichannel speakers are. In two-channel, the spatial impression is quite good, but I’m sure that in full multichannel, this particular recording would sound better than I heard it.

I also had a mild objection to the Rhapsody having only four tracks for its twenty-four Variations; it means if you want to go immediately to, say, Variation 18, you have to fast forward or reverse to find the spot. Not convenient. And while we’re at it, I’m not too keen on the standard SACD disc case, either. As you know, it is not like a conventional CD jewel box, and if it breaks, you probably have to send off for a replacement off the Internet. Over the years, for instance, I have received a number of these cases with broken hinges. The back-cover artwork does not fit into a conventional CD jewel case, so it was off to an Internet supplier to replace the broken SACD cases.

I know, complain, complain. Let it suffice to say that if you have an SACD player and a multichannel audio system, the Haas/Inbal disc may be worth your while investigating. For ordinary two-channel stereo playback, I prefer the Ashkenazy or Cliburn discs.


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

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concerto in F for Three Violins; Part: Passacaglia. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; David Lockington, English Chamber Orchestra. eOne EOM-CD-7790.

What? Another one? Yet another Seasons? Wait for it: The last time I reviewed a disc from American concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers it was The Bach Album, which contained the equally ubiquitous Bach violin concertos. I found the performances so good, I continue to recommend them in my “Basic Classical Collection on Compact Disc.” Now we have her renditions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, accompanied by Maestro David Lockington and the celebrated English Chamber Orchestra, and the performances are almost as delightful as her Bach. While the music may be shopworn from overuse, Ms. Meyer does them up in a lively and refreshing style.

Before commenting on the interpretations, though, there’s an interesting note about the violin she uses for the recording. Ms. Meyers usually performs on a variety of Stradivari, ones she either owns or has access to use. This time, however, she uses the 1741 Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu, built, coincidentally, in the year of Vivaldi’s death. In 2013 an anonymous buyer purchased the instrument for an unsurpassed amount of over $16,000,000 and announced that he would allow Meyers lifetime use of the instrument. Not only do connoisseurs consider it one of the finest violins in the world, no one has ever used it in the studio before; it makes its commercial recording debut here.

Anyway, back to the Italian violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Although he wrote hundreds of pieces of music, folks probably recognize him best for The Four Seasons, the little three-movement tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking dogs, dripping icicles, and howling winds. The composer meant them to accompany descriptive sonnets, making up the first four concertos of a longer work he wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention). Most people hardly remember the other concertos in the set.

Under Ms. Meyer, the familiar Spring concerto is appropriately cheerful, made even more so due to the violinist not overdoing anything in the piece. You won't find any exaggerated tempos (although hers are quick and spirited in a refined manner); no unusual dynamic contrasts; no extraordinary slowing down or speeding up for dramatic effect. Ms. Meyers keeps everything moving along at a fairly conventional, though stimulating pace. It's probably the way most listeners want their Seasons--enjoyably colorful and invigorating, without being annoyingly different just for the sake of being different. The Largo, with its meadows and fields, sounds properly peaceful, yet it never lags. And the final Allegro capers along cheerfully.

Throughout all of the music, Ms. Meyers's violin sounds exquisitely gorgeous in tone and playing, and Maestro Lockington's accompaniment with the ECO is precise and agreeable.

Summer gets an even more highly characterized reading than Spring, with the season's heat oppressive, the birds chatty, the wind picking up nicely, and the threat of storm just a tad menacing. When the summer storm does arrive, it does so in a whirlwind of energy. Very invigorating.

Ms. Meyer begins Autumn a touch too energetically for my taste, but to each his own. The music soon enough slips away into a fitting, if not altogether traditional-sounding slumber. Then, the closing hunt goes well, if, oddly, a bit less animated than I would have expected.

Winter has always been my favorite segment of the Seasons, with its icicles and frozen landscape, its hurrying to warmth, its delectable Largo by the hearth, and its final hints of ice and chill outside. It's here that Ms. Meyers and company outdo themselves in musical representation. As listeners, we should see and feel these surroundings, and we do.

Coupled with The Four Seasons are Vivaldi's Concerto for Three Violins in F major, RV551, which makes a handy companion piece. What is more out of the way is Arvo Part's Passacaglia, which the composer wrote in 2003 for violin and piano and later arranged for violin and orchestra as we find it here. It's true the music of the Baroque period inspired Part to write the piece, yet it remains a curious choice to complement the Vivaldi. Yet complement the Vivaldi it does, especially as it directly follows his Winter concerto. The two have a surprisingly lot in common, as Ms. Meyers points out in her reading.

Producer Susan Napodano DelGiorno and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the music for Entertainment One at Henry Wood Hall, London, in 2013. The sound is pretty typical of today's better digital recordings. It's ultraclean and clear, a little bright and forward, with a somewhat glossy sheen on the strings. What appears to be a harpsichord sounds, for reasons unknown, so far in the background it's practically in another room. Ms. Meyers's violin shows up in the foreground, not distractingly forward but close enough to remind us whose show this is. Midrange transparency is OK, as are ambient bloom, frequency extremes, and overall dynamics. Not bad sound; just adequate for the occasion.

Finally, a couple of minor carps among all these otherwise lovely goings on: First, either Ms. Meyers or her producers appear to insist upon not providing track times; they didn’t do it on The Bach Album, and they don’t do it here. I don’t know why they exclude timings; maybe they don’t think listeners care. Well, at least they provide a few good program notes on the composers and their music. I also didn't care much for the way the booklet folds out a foot-and-a-half long, making it difficult to hold. Nor did I like the idea of their printing the booklet in white text on a dark-gray background, making it even harder to read. Luckily, it doesn't diminish one's appreciation for the performances.


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

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Also, Capriccio Italien. Dmitrij Kitajenko, Gurzenich-Orchester Koln. Oehms Classics OC 671.

The noted Russian conductor Dmitrij Kitajenko concludes his survey of the six numbered Tchaikovsky symphonies and Manfred with this final recording in the series, the Fourth Symphony. As he did in his previous outings, he is able to inject a little new life into an old warhorse.

Of Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies, the final three numbered ones seem to have gotten the most love over the years. Maybe it’s because they are the most melodic, the most dramatic, and the most stirring of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic output, as well as the most overtly Romantic. Who knows. At any rate, Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, in 1877-78, saying to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, that he wanted to write on it "Dedicated to My Best Friend," meaning to her. In response, she persuaded him to write a program for the symphony, one he later withdrew because it caused him more trouble than it was worth. Anyway, the result was that the Fourth eventually took the public by storm, and it’s never been out of the public’s fancy to this day.

As with some of Beethoven’s music, there is a “fate” motif involved, which breaks out continuously; but insofar as its relating to any specific meaning, Tchaikovsky is a little vague on the matter in his wordy description. As the composer decided so long ago, it’s best to enjoy the symphony as pure music rather than “programme” music.

Under Maestro Kitajenko’s direction, the opening fanfare sounds elegant and regal, developing smoothly into its flowing, ballet-like second and third segments. Here, Tchaikovsky tells us that "life is a constant alternation between hard reality and fleeting dreams of happiness." Kitajenko might have contrasted these ideas more than he does, his reading a bit on the leisurely side, yet he draws out the melodies confidently, leaving us with an unmistakeable feeling of optimism. What's more, the venerable Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne play richly and effectively for him, giving the performance a rightful luster and polish.

While I’ve never thought the Andantino that follows as one of the composer’s most inspired pieces of writing, I admit it does help bring the music (and the listener) back down to earth after the exhilaration of the first movement, and in a few minutes it does finally open up nicely. It is, however, this second movement that works best for Kitajenko. His relatively relaxed approach appropriately expresses the music's overall tranquility and its touch of Russian melancholy.

There follows a playful little Scherzo, providing further relief before the big finale. Kitajenko projects the pizzicato rhythms of the movement with a charming ease, his gentle view of these capricious imaginings as delightful as any you'll hear.

Then there’s the concluding movement with its famous Russian folk song and its abundance of energy. It is really only in this Finale, which the composer marked "Allegro con fuoco" (fast and fiery) that Kitajenko probably could have shown a more red-blooded attitude. Not that he doesn't build up a heady sense of excitement at times, especially at the end, but the interpretation doesn't always produce the joy one might expect. Still, I quibble; Kitajenko does for the most part have the measure of the music and imparts to it a noble sense of Russian spirit.

The coupling on the disc is Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, which he wrote in 1880 after a carnival in Rome inspired him. The piece is redolent of Italian folk tunes, street songs, and martial music, forming an excess of vigorous melodies throughout. Tchaikovsky called it "an Italian fantasy on folk melodies."  Here, too, Kitajenko is at his best in the quieter moments, which are quite beguiling. This is a pleasantly amiable Capriccio rather than an overtly thrilling one.

Oehms Classics recorded the music at Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne, in 2010 and 2011. It comes on a hybrid two-channel/multichannel Super Audio Compact Disc playable in two-channel stereo on any ordinary CD player and in two-channel stereo and multichannel on an SACD player. I listened in two-channel stereo using a Sony SACD player. The sound is very full and widespread, slightly soft and warm, with a somewhat limited dimensionality but a realistic sense of ambient bloom. The engineers capture the dynamics fairly well, with moderate transparency in the midrange and at least adequate extensions of the bass and treble, if a touch strident in louder sections of the Capriccio.


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

Dvorak: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, three Slavonic Dances. Jose Serebrier, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 64527-6.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote nine symphonies, but it seems as though only the final three get any real love, at least insofar as recordings go. The few recordings of the Second Symphony we find usually come in complete sets because it’s really too long to couple with another Dvorak symphony on a single disc, and it’s not popular enough to sell a lot of single discs. Still, that isn’t stopping veteran conductor Jose Serebrier from continuing his march through the complete Dvorak symphonies, the current album being the fourth volume in the series. Nevertheless, because there aren’t a lot of single-disc performances of the Second, especially new digital ones, Serebrier almost has the field to himself. It doesn’t matter; his interpretation with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra would no doubt hold up reasonably well no matter how crowded the field.

Dvorak wrote the Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 4 in 1865, but he was so poor at the time he couldn’t even afford to have it bound. It finally premiered in 1888, getting all of one performance during the composer’s lifetime; not exactly an auspicious start for the young Dvorak or his second symphonic work. Fortunately, that doesn’t stop Maestro Serebrier from giving it his all.

The Second Symphony is a fairly light work, lyrical, bucolic, and agreeable. That’s the way Serebrier approaches it, with a strong, lively spirit yet with good humor and a pastoral outlook as well. The conductor maintains moderately quick tempos throughout, giving the piece a peppy yet easygoing amiability. The Second is essentially a cheerful, often gentle work, and Serebrier keeps it that way.

The symphony begins with a lengthy introduction, followed by a moderately more aggressive tune, an exposition, recapitulation, and coda, all in pretty much an Allegro con moto tempo as Dvorak indicates. Throughout this fifteen-minute movement, Serebrier and the Bournemouth players sound elegant and refined, even though he moves things along at a moderately rapid gait. The music may not be entirely memorable, but the conductor handles it in a fluid, fluent manner that makes it quite easy to take.

Under Serebrier the second-movement Adagio is peaceful and serene, a quiet tranquility pervading the scene, tinged with a touch of romantic melancholy. Next, we get what by Dvorak’s standards is an extra-long Scherzo, in which Serebrier finds suitable joy handling the varied and abundant themes.

Then comes a finale of great exuberance and even greater extravagance, the various melodies practically falling over one another. Here, Serebrier seems a bit more hesitant than in the previous sections of the symphonies. It's trifling, but he does appear to slow the pace a tad, at least in places, rather starting and stopping more than necessary. In any case, no harm done, and the conductor takes the music out on a grand, broad, Tchaikovsky-like sweep. Neither the symphony nor Serebrier's reading of it will probably win any awards, but it is doubtless satisfying and certainly more than competent.

Coupled with the symphony we find three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances from 1878 and 1886: Nos. 3 and 6 from Op. 46 and No. 7 from Op. 72. They are brief, about three to five minutes apiece, and they demonstrate the composer's later, more concise, more familiar style, with which he won his first international success. If Serebrier loses a little something in the way of rustic charm, he does give the music a lovely, effortless appeal, and they do, in fact, surpass the Symphony No. 2 in almost every way despite their brevity. Indeed, it may be their very conciseness that makes the Dances so delightful, filled as they are with lilting, high-spirited good will.

Warner Classics producer Alexander van Ingen and engineers Mike Hatch and Mike Cox recorded the music at the Lighthouse concert hall, Poole, England in 2013. Very nicely recorded, too, spacious and open, and very, very smooth. It's a tad close for my liking, but it's not distracting; it just decreases somewhat the sense of depth and dimensionality in the music. Dynamics, impact, and frequency extensions in the bass and treble are adequate, though not outstanding, and midrange definition is fine. The recording may not rank in the upper echelons of audiophile perfection, but like the performances it is easy on the ear and quite pleasant.


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

Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Lang Lang, piano; Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. DG B0000666-02.

An obvious word of caution: Any musical artist’s interpretation of a work is just that, an interpretation. Likewise, any music critic’s review of a performance is an opinion, a reaction to that interpretation. One cannot say either the artist’s interpretation or the critic’s reaction to it are right or wrong, correct or incorrect, in any absolute sense. One can make the case that there are virtues to every performance and leeway for reaction to every performance. If there were absolute right and wrong performances or reactions to them, we would no longer have interpretations or opinions about them; we would have truths. I mention all this because people sometimes get annoyed when a reviewer doesn’t see a performance the same way they do. And this is especially the case when the performer instills such emotions in listeners as Lang Lang does. His followers cry bloody murder when a critic disparages anything he does; his detractors cry foul when a reviewer says anything nice about him. Understand, it’s in the nature of criticism to have people agree or disagree it. It’s what opinions are all about.

Anyway, the disc under review was Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s debut recording for DG in 2003, and a daunting enterprise it was for a man just twenty-one years old. There is surely no doubting Lang’s technical keyboard expertise, but the results of the performances here are something of a mixed bag, though most of it is good.

The pianist and his accompaniment, Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony, take a bold, fast, sweeping, highly charged view of Romanticism’s most famous concerto. They get Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor off to its usual bang-up start from the opening chords, but then it never seems to let up through the entire first and third movements. Only in the first section of the second movement does Lang show any great degree of subtlety or repose. Otherwise, he appears to know only one speed: to charge full ahead with broad but highly controlled variations of tempo.

Nonetheless, while it’s all rather in high gear, Lang makes it work through the sheer brilliance of his virtuosity, and he gives us an intensely exciting presentation, to be sure. Still, compared to the maturity of some of his rivals--for instance, Cliburn (RCA), Giles (RCA), Argerich (DG or Philips), or Wild (Chesky), to name a few--he seems more than a little youthfully impetuous. Not that that is a bad thing, of course, and there is no question the second movement is hauntingly serene. But considering that Cliburn was about Lang’s age when he made his own famous recording, it cannot be entirely attributable to age alone.

Coupled with the Tchaikovsky is the lesser-known Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto, which I suppose DG intended as a more-relaxed and lightweight contrast to the fiery Tchaikovsky. However, the way Lang handles it, the Mendelssohn piece comes off almost as highly charged as the Russian’s. There is not as much singing rhythm or lyrical grace in the Mendelssohn as I would have liked, although there is much skillful brilliance and whizbang accomplishment.

Just as Lang’s playing will wow the crowds, so will DG’s sound turn some heads. Recorded in Chicago in 2003, it’s big and bold and reasonably clear from the opening bell, just like the performances. Still, like Lang’s interpretations, one notices almost immediately that something is just a little off. The dynamics are strong and impact is powerful, yet the piano overshadows everything else. Indeed, the piano appears to be twenty feet long and ten feet high, bigger than the orchestra behind it, while the orchestra itself produces a sound that seems slightly soft and rounded and a bit congested in the loudest passages. It sort of spoils the effect of Tchaikovsky’s biggest and most-popular melodies by almost drowning them out.

I don’t mean to seem harsh, and given Lang’s extraordinary talents I’m sure he will continue to be a dominant force in the musical world for rest of our lifetimes. However, insofar as the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto goes, the recordings I mentioned earlier seem to me more reasonable first choices, unless you’re a die-hard Lang Lang fan or you simply have deep enough pockets to buy every new and different version of basic repertoire items that come along. Certainly, for a lot of collectors the latter argument is valid, in which case Lang Lang’s view of Tchaikovsky may be of extreme interest. Besides, who knows, you may find it a treasure.


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

Chopin: Life According to Chopin (CD review)

Chopin’s Greatest Piano Solos. Jeffrey Biegel, piano. GPR Records GPR10014.

Every artist appears to love some composer more than others. American pianist, composer, arranger, teacher, and Steinway artist Jeffrey Biegel seems to love Chopin. In this album, he seems absolutely to adore Chopin. According to the album title, he must live Chopin. Not that he can’t play other music just as well, as his many previous recordings like the most-recent Bach on a Steinway (2010), A Steinway Christmas Album (2011), and A Grand Romance (2013) attest. It’s just that he looks as though he has a special affinity for Chopin and communicates an extra-special joy in communicating the man’s tunes. Thus, it’s a treat to find some of Mr. Biegel’s favorite Chopin in the 2014 release Life According to Chopin.

Interestingly, according to a booklet note, “Until the age of three, Mr. Biegel could neither hear nor speak until corrected by surgery. The ‘reverse Beethoven’ phenomenon can explain Mr. Biegel’s life in music, having heard only vibrations in his formative years.” What’s more, Mr. Biegel has filled his life with personal innovation. For instance, he “initiated the first live Internet recitals in New York and Amsterdam in 1997 and 1998, and, in 1999, assembled the largest consortium of orchestras (over 25) to celebrate the millennium with a new concerto composed for him.”

So, yes, Mr. Biegel is an artist of immense talent, boundless creativity, and high repute. It’s hard not to like his Chopin performances, even for someone like me who for years never thought he’d find anyone he’d like as well as the Chopin interpreters he grew up with: Rubinstein first, then Cliburn, Pollini, Ashkenazy, and others. Yet Biegel takes his place alongside them, doing Chopin proud.

Mr. Biegel begins the program with the Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1, the “Minute” waltz that he says “every young pianist MUST play.” Well, he’s not a young pianist anymore, but I’m glad he played it. Even though you may have heard it a hundred times, Biegel makes it come alive, fresh and new, with his lilting manner and gentle phrasing. With him it’s not just another lickety-split, look at how masterly a pianist I am; it’s a surprisingly amiable, lyrical piece that soars. Like all of Biegel’s Chopin, it shows us an artist at the service of a composer’s music rather than an artist using a composer’s music merely to show off his virtuosity.

And so it goes through a dozen selections and over seventy minutes of music. Here, I couldn't help pick favorites among Biegel's favorites. The Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, for example, is dazzling in both its technical showmanship and its graceful, rhapsodic beauty. The Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 ebbs and flows wonderfully from one tonal region to another. The Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2 is as light, sheer, and gossamer as any reading you'll find as Biegel plays it in this transcription by Theodor Leschitezky. I could go on, and as you can guess, I probably will. I love every track on this disc.

Biegel produces music with passion and soul, never distorting the notes but adding an intimate touch of joy and expressiveness to them. One listen to the Andante Spianato, Op. 22 gives you an idea of what I mean; it's conveys real inspiration and feeling in every phrase. It's delightful in its smooth, fluent motion and ever-changing line. Then, the familiar Fantasie-Impromptu No. 4 in C-sharp minor, Op. 66 ("I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" was the pop-song treatment) is never flashy but glides along rhythmically, effortlessly, stylishly, producing an uncanny sensation of improvisation with precision.

If you like Mr. Biegel's piano playing, if you like Chopin, heck, if you just like music, you cannot go wrong with this album. And it helps that it sounds so good.

Recorded at Patrych Sound Studios, New York, in 2013 by producer Joe Patrych, Biegel’s Chopin album sounds as good as anything he’s done. Like most good piano recordings, this one sounds rich,  warm, resonant, and very, very clean, with virtually no distortion, brightness, hardness, edginess, dryness, or anything else to distract one from the music. It's quite realistic, with its clear, solid transient impact and natural, lifelike acoustic setting.


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