Mar 31, 2014

Mozert: Suite Carmen in a G-String (SADD review)

Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivien Barnstable III, Upper Freedonia Baroquen Orchestra. Hecca-Goode Records IRS401k.

It's always a pleasure to welcome yet another recording from Maestro Vivien Barnstable in his pursuit of chronicling the entire oeuvre of the redoubtable fifteenth-century composer, accordionist, batboy, and student of the sweet science, Wolfpuck Amaryllis Mozert. That the composer's entire musical output amounted to but one composition seems irrelevant under the circumstances.

As a child, young W.A. (1717-1843) was so poor he couldn't afford parents. He lived first with a poor but honest woodcarver, Guippetto Polendina, whose only other friend was a talking cricket. When the state took Guippetto away for psychiatric care, young W.A., together with another homeless waif, Arne Schwarzenegger, went to live with a single man, Uhp Baum, and her husband, Adam Baum. By the time they were old enough to leave home (W.A. and Arne, not Uhp and Adam), the Baums asked them if they would like to change their names before venturing forth into the world. Young W.A. said, "Yes, I'll be Mozert," and young Arne declared, "I'll be Bach." The rest is history.

At the time young Wolfpack began in the music business, he didn't know a clef note from a notepad. Fortunately, he studied hard, and with the help of Clef Notes he soon wrote on his most-famous composition, The Nutquacker, premiered in 1716 by Maestro Aflack Duckworth. He followed that with the piece we find recorded here, Suite Carmen in a G-String, Take 5, BMW 536i, written posthumously in 1844 and redacted from the opera Lady Windermere's Fan Club, the tale of a poor but honest woodpecker. As an aside, W.A.'s only other music of distinction was a contemporary work, The Four Seasonings, premiered to great acclaim in 1983 by the Spice Girls. Of course, The Seasonings are a matter of taste.

Anyway, the Upper Freedonia Baroquen Orchestra are a hysterically informed ensemble who play not only on period instruments, but on several commas and an exclamation point. More important, Sir Vivien throws himself into the music with Gay Abandon (not to be confused with her cousin twice removed, Guy Renounce). The resulting experience is an experience to be experienced. At least once, especially the way the conductor goes out on a sneeze in the final Allegra con motocross.

And now, we go to our unofficial judge at ringside, Harold Lederman, for the official results. Harold, how do you score the performance? "OK, Jim, I have it 119-111, Barnstable. I thought he kept up a fast, aggressive pace throughout the show, with a clean, effective pizzicato and a balanced rest. Jim!" Thank you, Harold.

In terms of sound, producer Moses Horowitz (whose grandfather invented the top-loading Hoover), executive producer Jerome Horowitz, assistant producer Samuel Horowitz, and audio engineers Louis Feinberg, Joe Besser, and Joseph Wardell recorded the music in May, 1643, at Huntz Hall, Cardigansheer Shire, Wales, Czech Republic, using Doppelganger 747 open-ended cylindrical containers and Loomis B-29 cotton-fibre interconnects. The then-state-of-the-art equipment produced horrid results, naturally, which the present Hecca-Goode remaster has done nothing to improve. If you listen carefully to the MP-3 technostructure through non-spurious stereophile receivers, you will hear little but unintelligible noise; yet behind the discordant signals you may also note a conspicuous disquietude, attributable no doubt to the maladroit proclivities of the Hecca-Goode remastering technicians, whose rubato is clearly as dark as their hair. Incongruous coiffures aside, the soniferous impulses display a salient objectivity, marked by an extraneous absence of nugatory auditory oscillation.

It sounds OK.

Or, better yet, in the immortal words whence cameth the Beard of Avon calling:

"Fen be upon thy cudgel
Whose power is in the first proportion,
Advanced above pale envy's threatening reach.
As when the golden sun trembles at her earthly wait
And faster bound to Aaron's slavish weeds."

Write on, dude.


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

Mar 30, 2014

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf (SACD review)

Also, Beintus: Wolf Tracks. Mikhail Gorbachev, Sophia Loren, Bill Clinton. Kent Nagano, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics 5186 011.

Mikhail Gorbachev? Sophia Loren? Bill Clinton? What goes on here? PentaTone Classics assembled an all-star cast of narrators for their coupling of Prokofiev's perennial favorite, Peter and the Wolf, written in 1936, and Jean-Pascal Beintus's newer work, Wolf Tracks, which premiered in 2002. The PentaTone disc, which won a Grammy in 2004, is a plea for cooperation and understanding among the peoples of the world and the environment they share. It's really quite a sweet notion, and the coupling of the two compositions effectively demonstrates the viability of the idea. Now, if we could just force the governments of the world to listen and behave themselves, maybe we'd get somewhere.

Mr. Gorbachev introduces the disc, comments in between the two works, and concludes with an epilogue. Ms. Loren sweetly narrates Peter, and Mr. Clinton narrates Wolf Tracks. Together, they make a formidable team. Of course, despite the disc's well-meaning intent, it is probably for Peter and the Wolf that most people would buy it, and, fortunately, it is a decent account. Ms. Loren injects a note of warmth and humor into the piece, and Kent Nagano and the Russian National Orchestra play with conviction, grace, and wit. Never does Nagano let the work flag, and never do the characters it portrays seem anything but well defined and recognizable. Although I still have a special fondness for the old (1957) Vanguard recording of Peter, wonderfully narrated by Boris Karloff, it's not a bad account from this newcomer, if gentler and less menacing.

The companion piece, Wolf Tracks, is a more debatable proposition. If somewhat lightweight, it's nevertheless a pleasant enough appeal for tolerance, as Peter's grandson learns about the importance of wolves and all creatures in the great scheme of things. I enjoyed it, along with Mr. Clinton's homey touch at narration, but it isn't the kind of thing I might find myself going back to. It was kind of a one-off proposition for me.

The 2003 audio from PentaTone reminds me of some of Telarc's albums, and the recording comes to us as a hybrid Super Audio CD (SACD), so it contains both a multichannel layer and an ordinary two-channel layer. One can play it on an SACD player or in stereo only on an ordinary CD player. As one might expect, it sounded fairly good in the two-channel SACD stereo mode to which I listened, the narration perhaps a little close but the orchestra opening up well behind it, both left-to-right and front-to-back. Frequency response, bass, transient impact, and such are what we have come to admire from SACD's, perhaps a tad warm, soft, and veiled but natural enough regardless.


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

Mar 27, 2014

Brahms by Heart (CD review)

Quartets Nos. 1 in C minor and No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51; Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67; Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111. Chiara String Quartet, with Roger Tapping, viola. Azica ACD-71289 (2-disc set).

For those readers not aware, the Chiara String Quartet is a string quartet based in Lincoln, Nebraska. They are the Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Music, Harvard University's Blodgett Artists-in-Residence, and faculty in residence at the Greenwood Music Camp. Joining the group's regular members--Rebecca Fischer and Hye Yung Julie Yoon, violins; Jonah Sirota, viola; and Gregory Beaver, cello--for the Quintet No. 2 is violist Roger Tapping.

The group has been performing professionally since 2000, and they are currently in the midst of recording all of Brahms's string quartets and the aforementioned quintet. Yes, they are very, very good, and, yes, they are strong in the present album. Even a lukewarm Brahms fan like me found the music making engrossing; I'm sure the serious Brahms enthusiast would love it.

While it probably seems to you, too, as though German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote about 800 string quartets, he actually published only three, the three we have in this set. Something of a perfectionist, he reportedly destroyed about twenty other quartets he had written before the Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51 in 1873 finally satisfied him. No doubt it had something to do with his inferiority complex when he compared himself to Beethoven as he didn't write his first symphony until relatively late in life as well.

Anyway, the Chiara players are a delight in both of the first two Op. 67 quartets. A booklet note tells us that the "Chiara Quartet is moving forward by taking a cue from the past. Harkening back to a tradition that is centuries old and still common among soloists, the Chiara Quartet has adopted a new way of performing from memory or 'by heart.' After memorizing a work, the Quartet is rewarded with deeply gratifying performances in which each member feels fully present in the moment, truly performing with heart, by heart."

It must work since they sound so good together. They certainly pour strong feelings into each piece of music, playing up the contrasts in the score with gusto and emphasizing the vitality of every note. When they're moving along well, they adopt a zippy gait, and when they slow down, it's to a comfortable and meaningful pace. Whatever, memorized or not, they play together with precision, bringing both emotion and accuracy to their performances, from stormy intensity to hushed tranquility and from subtle beauty to sudden outbursts.

It would be about three more years after Nos. 1 and 2 before Brahms premiered his next string quartet, the Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67, in 1876. He called the work "a useless trifle," and it is, indeed, carefree and joyous. Again, we get clean textures from the Chiara players in a piece that bears some superficial resemblance to the work of Mozart and Beethoven. Compared to Quartets 1 and 2, No. 3 seems more relaxed and better unified, too. The Chiara group revel in the lovely tunes Brahms devised, and they give special attention to the climax of each movement, building the tensions slowly but attentively.

Brahms didn't publish the Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 until 1890, just half a dozen years or so before his death. The Quintet adds a second viola to the usual complement of two violins, viola, and cello. Moreover, the Quintet seems built on a more-imposing scale than the Quartets, suggesting that perhaps Brahms had intended some of the music for inclusion in a possible fifth symphony. The Chiara ensemble surely do the work justice, playing it in grand style, the melodies soaring, the intertwining of the instruments sounding richly generous and robust. The third and fourth movements with their Gypsy-like intonations are particularly beguiling. Expertly played, this is chamber music for listeners who say they only like symphonic music.

Produced and engineered by Judith Sherman and assisted by Jeanne Velonis, the Chiara String Quartet recorded the music at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York in April 2012. The first thing one notices about the sound is how vibrant and dynamic it is. There is nothing vague, recessed, or reticent about it, nor is it bright or edgy. It is moderately close yet not in your face. It's quite realistic, in fact, with good body and definition and plenty of air around each instrument.


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

Mar 26, 2014

Mozart: Youth Symphonies, Volume 1 (SACD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  PentaTone Classics 5186 112.

When director Milos Foreman and producer Saul Zantz asked Neville Marriner to conduct the music for Amadeus, their 1984 movie depiction of Mozart's life, there was good reason for the choice. These recordings are one of them.

In the early 1970's, Marriner was among the first conductors to record Mozart's early symphonies in stereo, a fairly startling and groundbreaking enterprise for the time. Back then, most people had pretty much disregarded most of the composer's youthful writing in favor of the big later pieces. Marriner showed the world the worth of some of the earlier works.

Then, in 2003 the folks at PentaTone Classics unearthed the original master tapes for a number of these Marriner recordings that Philips Records had originally done in the Quadraphonic format but never released that way. PentaTone remastered them in a series of four volumes in the two-layer, hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD format, this first volume of four containing the Symphony in G, and the Symphonies Nos. 7a, 12, and 18. Of the four symphonies, I must admit the two very earliest are charming but shallow; that is, they are tuneful, jaunty, and sweet, but they haven't a lot of substance one can remember. By contrast, Nos. 12 and, especially, 18 are more original, more complex, and more remarkable. Indeed, No. 18 is alone worth the SACD's asking price. That is, if you don't mind the somewhat hefty cost of these four-channel discs.

Needless to say, Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields perform the works with their customary sprightly vigor and refined taste, and the PentaTone engineers remastered the Philips recordings in audio highly reminiscent of how many of us recall Philips discs sounding in the early Seventies.

The sound, which Philips recorded at Brent Town Hall, Wembly, London in 1972 and 1973, is big and warm and a tad soft in the midrange, with traces of hardness at times in the treble, nevertheless providing the relatively small ensemble with a rather larger size than their numbers would admit; nonetheless, the audio seems entirely appropriate. This is not a period-instruments group, after all, and the sound seems properly traditional. Indeed, in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, I found the sound quite pleasing. It's maybe not entirely of audiophile quality, but it's reasonably natural and well defined.

Again, my only hesitation here is in recommending a person spend money on a hybrid SACD for two-channel stereo alone if a person hasn't got an SACD player to enjoy the full capabilities of the SACD or surround-sound layers. On the other hand, as far as I can determine at the moment of this writing, investing in this disc (or PentaTone's complete box set) may be the best way to obtain the Marriner performances since the original Philips discs in complete sets may cost even more, if you can even find them. And if you do have an SACD player, well, the disc seems self-recommending.


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

Mar 24, 2014

Miraculous Metamorphoses (CD review)

Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis; Prokofiev: The Love of Three Oranges; Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-132.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary tells us that a metamorphosis is "1. a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism, as from the caterpillar to the pupa and from the pupa to the adult butterfly. 2. a complete change of form, structure, or substance, as transformation by magic or witchcraft. 3. any complete change in appearance, character, circumstances, etc. 4. a form resulting from any such change." But you knew that. The question is why Reference Recordings chose to title their album "Miraculous Metamorphoses." The answer, of course, is that each of the three works included on the disc represents a kind of metamorphosis, the music originally deriving from something quite different from what it became.

The first selection is the most obvious example of the album's theme: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, written by German-born U.S. composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) for ballet performance. Hindemith completed the work in 1943, based on music originally composed by Weber in the early nineteenth century as incidental music for a play by Carlo Gozzi. Although the piece continues to get some ballet performances, we more often hear the symphonic arrangement presented here by Maestro Michael Stern and his Kansas City Symphony.

The music is generally light and lively, and that's the way Maestro Stern plays it. Just as Hindemith maintained a healthy respect for Weber's music, so does Stern maintain a respect for Hindemith, neither over-dramatizing the more boisterous sections nor romanticizing the slower, more sentimental parts. He executes the Turandot Scherzo especially well, the percussion putting on a splendidly vigorous show. The Andantino is appropriately calm yet never so gentle as to put one to sleep. Then Hindemith returns to the lighthearted energy of the first movement with an exuberant closing March, which Stern handles well, efficiently building the excitement incrementally until we arrive at an enormously rousing climax. Fun stuff.

Following the Hindemith piece is the suite from The Love of Three Oranges by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). The composer intended The Love of Three Oranges as a satirical opera, premiered in 1921 and based again on the works of Carlo Gozzi, so we get two connections between the Hindemith and Prokofiev pieces--the composers meant them to be amusing and based them on works by the same earlier author.

Anyway, here we get the six-movement suite Prokofiev lifted from his opera. Once more Stern takes on the music gleefully. Maybe it's in the nature of the music, but Maestro Stern seems to have an even better time with Prokofiev's rather silly music than he did with Hindemith's. Never going overboard to make the Prokofiev sound too caustic or too absurd, he goes for a polite charm that actually makes it more delightful. The third-movement March is probably the most-famous music in the set, and Stern does it up in properly straight-faced, tongue-in-cheek fashion. It's a pleasure from beginning to end.

Finally, we get the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), and the album's theme is complete. At least insofar as concerns the "miraculous" part. It was originally a one-act pantomime ballet that quite infuriated audiences of the time, caused a scandal, and eventually got banned. Today, we mostly hear the concert suite offered here.

The tone of the music is quite different from that of the first two selections on the album. The Miraculous Mandarin is rather grim in mood, its plot concerning three tramps who use a beautiful girl to attract men to an apartment, where they rob and attempt to murder them. It's heavy-going music, dark and somber. Gone are the fun and games of the Hindemith and Prokofiev pieces, replaced by an atmosphere of unyielding despair. Stern makes no attempt to glamorize a score that clearly the composer intended as gloomy, mysterious, and forbidding. At least that's the way Stern plays it, with a heavy emphasis on the mysterious angle. A lot of it sounds downright scary. The Kansas City Orchestra provides Maestro Stern with a secure accompaniment, again with the percussion section lending solid support.

It's always a pleasure listening to an album made by the Reference Recordings team of producer David Frost, recording wizard Keith Johnson, and executive producers Tam Henderson and Marcia Martin. They never attempt to attain the kind of absolute transparency so beloved of the audiophile community but instead capture something closer to the actual sound of a concert hall, in this case Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in 2012.

The sound is wonderfully spacious, dimensional, and dynamic, as you would expect to hear from a symphony orchestra at perhaps the eighth or tenth row center. While the stereo spread is wide, the miking is not so close that you're on top of the instruments. Instead, we hear a depth to the ensemble, with plenty of impact and wide frequency extremes. It's some of the most-natural, most-realistic, most-lifelike new sound you'll find around.


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

Mar 23, 2014

Morning Has Broken (short story)

No, this is not a classical-music review. It's not classical, it's not music, it's not classical music, and it's not even classic. It's a short story I wrote some years ago that's been kicking around my hard drive ever since and offers proof positive why I should never write fiction. If it's not to your liking, come back later.

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting."
--William Wordsworth

Mr. Steven Meade awoke with a start, blurry-eyed as usual and angry at getting up. He was always angry mornings--angry at getting out of bed, angry at going to work, angry at facing the world another day. He wasn't lazy; he knew that. He was just...angry. As usual.

But something was different today. Something he felt. Something curious and oddly disturbing. Intuition? He couldn't tell; he just knew. He twisted restlessly for a minute; then he opened his eyes.

It was impossible. He closed his eyes. Opened them again. The room was still there. The old room; the unmistakable room.

Not his room.

No. This couldn't be, he thought. He was still dreaming. My imagination. Yes, a dream. It would be all right in a second.

It wasn't.

He felt dizzy. The room swirled around him. A dream, but not a dream. The room was there.  His eyes began to focus.  He could see.  He reached a shaky hand to feel his covers, his bedstead, his other hand.  They were real.  But they couldn't be. This wasn't possible.
Close your eyes, he thought.  This will be over in a moment. Pull the covers up and close your eyes and go back to sleep. To sleep perchance to dream. That was it. Just sleep. But he knew he could never sleep, not now, maybe not ever. He was trembling, and his eyes were fixed on a spot on the ceiling, a tiny brown scuff, where as a child he had bounced a ball too high. Never play with your toys in the house, his mother had told him. Won't you ever listen? Wouldn't he? No, it wasn't possible.

He hadn't been in this room in over thirty years. He hadn't been in this bed in longer than that!  He glanced overhead at the decals on the headboard to confirm the worst. There were the sailboats and blue ocean waves he had picked out as a child; and here was the light-blue bed he had slept in until the fifth grade, when he had graduated to a real, adult's dark-wood frame. But he couldn't be here now. This thing couldn't be happening to him.
Still shaking, he took the next risk: He looked down at his hands. Small. A child's hands. Not the hands of a forty-six- year-old man; not the hands he had come to know; the hands on his office computer day after day; the hands he watched on knives and forks and spoons; the hands that caressed his wife, that hugged his son, that opened his doors, that gripped his briefcase, that....

He wasn't here. He couldn't be here. He knew it.

But he was.

Think. Think, he told himself. What were the rational explanations? Things had substance, feel, touch. This could still be a dream. Or? Or, the next possibility was the most terrifying of all. A possibility he dared not consider, but must. His life had been a dream.

No, never. Stupid. Impossible. Some forty-odd years a dream! His wife, his son, his friends, his job, his house--a dream? Never. But his speculations seemed ever more feasible to him in light of his present situation.

Calm down, he thought. This will end soon. It will all be over. But the tremors in his hands and feet would not stop that easily. Proof. He needed more proof.

The mirror. Quivering as he was, he wondered if he could make it as far as from his bed to the small, oval mirror on his bureau drawer. And what new dread would he find there? Who would look back at him across that space of a few feet and so many years?

He staggered across the room and looked, and the horror was complete. A small, round, eight-year-old face. The face of crumpled, monochrome photographs. The face he had laughed at in old albums. His face. His now face. The one that wouldn't go away no matter how many times he said no to it out loud.

But the horror was not over. He knew then, with the next sound, that the horror would never be over.

"Stevie?" he heard. "Stevie, what's all that noise? Are you getting up with your radio on again? You know your father is trying to sleep. Steven, will you answer me?"

His mother.

How do you answer someone who has been dead for a decade? What do you say to a second chance at eternity? And if you do answer, what voice will come out of that stranger's throat you now called your own?


He did the only thing he could do. "Nothing,"

"Well, keep it down. Are you getting up for school? It's half past seven, you know. Steven?"


The words almost took his breath away. The high-pitched child's voice that could not have been his, yet was.

He knew this would pass. He had to collect himself. Time would take care of everything. Time heals all.... But what about now? What do I do now?

He looked around the room. Everything so familiar, so much his own, like his voice, yet so far away. The double bed with the headboard decals. The Hopalong Cassidy curtains, the ones he had had to have, hanging two inches from the floor, shrunk from too many of his mother's fastidious washings. The closet door with its tarnished brass handle, dented from a mis-swung bat some thirty-eight years ago. No, last summer. No, thirty-eight years ago.

The four-drawer bureau on the side wall. Would it still hold his treasures in the bottom drawer: The dirty, yellowing dice in the beat-up tin box his uncle had brought back from the War?  The Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring? The genuine Chinese fortune-telling sticks with their odd, faintly exotic, musty odor of Chinatown? They were all there, safe and fast.

Then, from the corner of his eye he noticed his old Electro-Voice radio, (tubes; he remembered tubes) sitting on the night stand, tuned, he was sure, to whatever station, he forgot now, carried "Big John and Sparky" every Saturday morning. So long forgotten; so quickly remembered. The Teddy Bears' Picnic and "no school today." KFGO. 680 on the dial. Not forgotten; a lifetime of memories, on tap, flooding back. Touch the right buttons, he thought, and it's all there. It's always been there.

But what now? What do I do now?

He had to have a plan, a set of alternatives. There were always alternatives. He could stay in bed, pretending to be sick. But he knew his mom; she would make him stay there all day. And, besides, if his dad was still in bed at 7:30, he must have just gotten off graveyard, the midnight shift, and would be sleeping until mid afternoon; meaning there could be no noise in the house most of the day. The idea of lying awake in his bed for the next eight hours, thinking and seething and worrying, was too much for him; he heard a barely perceptible "huh-ah" escape his stranger's lips. No, something else. Alternatives.

His real life, he thought. He had to reenter his old, his real life. He had to reawaken tomorrow in his real room, in his real home, with his real family; not here, not with these... impostors. He would drive out to his house--his own house--and recapture his past. But how? He was eight now; he couldn't drive. And what of his house? It was built only ten years ago. There would be nothing there but vacant lots and rolling hills. OK, he would cross those hills when he came to them. This afternoon he would talk his father into driving him to the country, and they would wind up near where his real house should be, and then.... And then what? He didn't know, but he had to see. He had to find out.

In the meantime, there was school. That might be the place to start. What about other kids, his friends? He wondered if any of them had been grown up, too? How many children harbored the same secrets he did, secrets too dark even to whisper for fear of ridicule and shame? He would find out.

So, Steven did the only thing he could do. He reached into the second bureau drawer and (yes, they were there) removed a set of underwear and socks; went to his closet and unhooked his jeans from a row of nails that he remembered he and his father putting up so long ago; changed out of his pajamas (pajamas--he hadn't worn pajamas in...); put on a shirt and shoes (so small, so small); and steeled himself for the day.

He opened the bedroom door.

His mom would be in the kitchen, making toast and pouring milk over his cereal. Dependable, predictable mom. Why, he was still shaking. How very curious, he thought, for his hands to be visibly trembling while his legs were like lead stumps.

"Are you finally up, Stevie?" his mother said as he entered the kitchen. She hadn't looked around at him.  She was bending over the breakfast table, a sugar bowl and spoon in hand. Who would he see when she turned around? Who would she see! He knew, then, he couldn't do it, couldn't face this all-too-real nightmare in this all-too-real world, and he tried to turn away; but that old, accustomed voice ("Steven!") with its tone of resolute control jerked him forward, and he faced his mom for the first time in a long, long while.

She was beautiful.

He had never remembered her as beautiful. When he was young, she had always just been mom. Then they both got older, and she was just...old. But she was his mother, then and now; that was the first thing he was sure of today.

"What on earth are you acting so peculiar for this morning?" she demanded. "Are you feeling all right? Let me get your temperature." And before he could respond, she had her hand on his forehead. "Well, you feel fine," she was saying.

Fine. Fine! he thought. Mom, none of us are fine. None of this is fine. We're not real. We're not here! You're dead, and I'm miles away and married, and....

"Now sit down and eat, or you'll be late for school." And she turned toward the laundry room, leaving him there alone with his bowl of Sugar Pops, and his brand-new, old hands and arms, and his thoughts.

School. School is where you learned things. How ironic, he mused. But maybe today he really would learn something, like who he was. And if not, there were the alternatives. Like driving to the new home site. Or, or.... Well, there were always alternatives, even if you couldn't think of them.

He left his breakfast half eaten and kissed his mom good- bye. Any other time, he thought, any other time he would have stayed with her a lifetime--so much to say, so much to explain-- but not today, not now. There was too much else to do, too much to see, too much to analyze and understand. He even considered going into his father's room and waking him up and kissing him good-bye.  It had been so long. But there would be time for that. An odd thought: time for that. How could there be? All of this would end any moment now. Wasn't that one of the alternatives, that this would be over as quickly as it began? And yet, it was just a feeling, a feeling he couldn't pin down. He started out the door, almost forgetting his lunch pail on the kitchen counter.

"Steven, your lunch," he heard his mom say. He grabbed the pail and all but ran out of the house and through the front gate. Here he was on more accustomed ground. Here, on this clear May morning, everything about the neighborhood crystalized into sharp relief. Funny, he thought, how so much is stored in memory, how so much can be called back so quickly, so easily. Like all those TV antennas. There used to be TV antennas. Where had they gone? Underground? And old cars. New cars now, but looking so different. And yet, so common, so everyday they could almost be.... He was about to say real, but they weren't, he knew, and he tried to get the thought out of his head once and for all. But it was hard, so very hard.

He continued down the street until he could almost see his school. He would find the answers there; there where his teachers knew everything, and the world was still in order. Dickerson Elementary and his second grade teacher, Miss Carnapple. Dear old Miss Crab Apple, the children called her. She would know. He was sure.

But how would he talk to these people? He hadn't said more than two words to his mom this morning. What words did an eight- year-old use? They'd take him home and have his head examined if used his own, normal vocabulary; that's what would happen. He'd sound like one of those Whiz Kids he remembered from the old radio days, someone odd, someone weird and phoney. But wouldn't that prove something, too? Didn't he want to show the world that he was, in fact, different? Didn't he want to confirm his own, real identity for everyone to see, himself included? He wasn't sure. All these (what was the word?) choices were beginning to tire him. He was more confused than ever, and, worse, he felt the cold wash of panic starting to pour over him. Something had to happen, and happen fast.

He felt himself slipping away, dissolving into something else.

The school grounds were filling up with the same talking, laughing, yelling, running kids he knew so well. He mumbled "hi" to a few of them on occasion as he made his way across campus; strange, he thought, as he entered his classroom, how close they all were, and how distant. Certainly, the little blonde girl in the corner was worth more than a casual glance. He was in love with her. That was simple enough. He had been in love with her since the beginning of September, almost eight months, a school year, a lifetime. Would she hold the answers? He doubted it. After all, now that he considered it, he hadn't actually spoken to her in all those eight months. But he would. Today, he said to himself, he would. Maybe. Later, today.

But later was long in coming. Everything was longer now. Was it just school that made the minutes trail by so slowly, or was it his age, his youth? Why did people grow old so fast?

Why didn't they cherish the here and now the way they should? Why....

"Steven?  Stevie!"

"Huh?  What? Yes, ma'am," Steve replied. Miss Carnapple seemed a million miles away, but there was no mistaking her now, poised above his head, sharpened tongue at the fore.

"I asked you for the definition of dictator," she was saying.

He knew that. He knew the word. The class had been talking about that guy in Russia the day before. He was a dictator, Miss Carnapple had said. He knew that.

"Well?" she continued. "Are you going to say anything, or should I call on James?"

Yeah, sure, he thought, let James answer it. You always let James answer things. James the pet. James his best friend, but always competing. Just yesterday, James had gotten two points more than he did on the weekly arithmetic test. But he'd show him. He'd get even on this week's spelling quiz.  This time....


"Huh?" He knew the word, that dictator word. He'd think of it. He just needed a minute to think.  Why wouldn't anyone give him time to think! It wasn't right. It wasn't fair!

"Answer me!"

"It ain't fair," he heard himself screaming to a stunned audience of teacher and kids. "It just ain't fair!"

She sent him home.

The day had not gone well, not well at all. Things clouded over. He was lost and calling aloud forever with no response. Calling aloud to no one.

He was glad to be home. Dinner with his family was silent; the incident at school went unmentioned. As always, his father sat half buried in his nightly news, his mother quietly content with her own eternally unshared dreams. After dinner the TV. And then night.

He lay his head on his pillow and closed his eyes. He loved night best of all, he thought; his bed, his blankets, the comfort and shelter of dark.

Stevie Meade had a vague uneasiness as he drifted off into sleep. Something about that morning. Something about his life. But he wouldn't worry; it would pass. All things do.


Mar 20, 2014

Gal: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Symphony No. 1. Kenneth Woods, Orchestra of the Swan. Avie AV2233.

With this disc Maestro Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan conclude their survey of the four symphonies by Viennese teacher, pianist, and composer Hans Gal (1890-1987). What has been a little unclear is why Avie coupled each of the Gal symphonies with one by German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). The connections continue to be rather nebulous to me, although a booklet note explains that it has something to do with people often misunderstanding both Gal and Schumann and with both of their "first" symphonies not actually being the composers' first symphonic works. And, of course, both composers were born in the same century and wrote four symphonies. OK. The main thing is that Woods and his players again do up the symphonies nicely, which is all most of us really care about.

Although much of what preoccupied Gal in his lifetime was opera, he produced his Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 30 in 1927, his publisher suggesting to him that it was really a sinfonietta and he should title it so. Gal resisted and submitted the work to a music competition, winning second prize. Thereafter, it enjoyed a short-lived fame but since 1933 has received only three public performances.

Gal's First Symphony is relatively brief, about thirty minutes, and more outgoing than the other symphonies I've heard from him. Maestro Woods takes advantage of these characteristics to provide a lively and colorful rendering of things. The symphony is clearly Romantic in nature yet with strong hints of the coming modernism of the twentieth century. Woods emphasizes the melodic lines, keeps the Burleske playful, draws out a lovely Elegie, and ends with a rousing account of the Rondo finale. Although I had never heard the work before now, I would find it hard to imagine anyone handling it any better than Woods, nor any orchestra playing it with more accuracy and enthusiasm.

Schumann wrote his Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op. 38 "Spring" in 1841, soon after he married Clara Wieck. Clara claimed her husband called it the "Spring Symphony" because of the "Spring" poems of Adolph Boettger; Robert claimed he so named it because of his "spring of love." Obviously, the symphony is therefore romantic in every sense. He tinkered with it until its publication in final form in 1853, and listeners have loved it ever since.

Regarding the Schumann piece, we are in another symphonic world altogether. It really seems a little unfair to Gal to have the two works side by side. Not that the Gal symphony fares all that poorly by itself; its pastoral effects, especially, are quite a charming reflection of early twentieth-century music. But Schumann wrote a masterpiece for the ages, which Woods offers up in a spirited if rather quickly paced interpretation. The reading loses a little something in the way of Schumann's singing melodies and poetic grace, replaced by a more energetic swagger; less of a dance than a sprint. The trade-off isn't all that bad, mind you, just different. Nevertheless, Woods's rendition doesn't displace my favorite recordings of Schumann's First Symphony from Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Roy Goodman (RCA), and others, which seem to me to combine the best of both vitality and lyricism in their versions.

Simon Fox-Gal (the grandson of composer Hans Gal) produced, engineered, and edited the recording, made at Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon in December 2013. The sound he obtained shows good depth and clarity. The orchestra appears to be somewhat small, about thirty or so players if we can believe the photograph of them in the accompanying booklet, and as a small ensemble they sound a bit more transparent than a full orchestra might sound. The overall sonic presentation seems a tad forward to me, while revealing good detail. It's also a touch strident in the upper frequencies during loudest passages, but not enough to concern most listeners. With its wide stereo presentation, fairly good dynamics, transient response, and impact, the audio comes off pretty well.


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

Mar 19, 2014


You've probably already seen this, but if you haven't, it's worth your time.

It's a commercial to commemorate the 130th anniversary of the founding of Banco Sabadell. In it, the bank says it wanted to pay homage to their city by means of the campaign "Som Sabadell" (We are Sabadell).

It's a remarkable experience, both for the performers and the listeners. If only most CD recordings could capture the joy, spirit, and enthusiasm of the participants we find in this piece.

Here are a few of the places on-line you'll find the item posted:


Mar 17, 2014

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902176.77 (2-disc set).

Insofar as concerns historically informed performances of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos played on period instruments, the most-recent release from Trevor Pinnock and his handpicked Baroque ensemble on Avie rather swept the field a few years ago. This is not to dismiss Pinnock's own earlier recording with the English Concert (DG) or Tafelmusik's fine rendering (Tafelmusik or Sony) or the ones from Apollo's Fire (Avie), Jordi Savall (Astree), Gustav Leonhardt (Sony), and others. It's just that it's not easy to produce something new anymore that surpasses old favorites in terms of performance and sound. Nevertheless, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi give it a try, and some listeners may like their way with things better than anything they've heard before.

Anyway, you'll recall that Bach's Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them as a single, unified group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several musical works for him, and what he got a couple of years later was a collection of six concertos for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that Bach had probably written at various times for various other occasions.

Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the concertos, and Bach arranged it for the biggest number of players. It is also my least favorite, but that's of no concern. In No. 1 the Freiburg ensemble, playing without a conductor, layer the various sections of music nicely, and in the outer movements keep the rhythms lively and energetic. The Adagio, too, sounds spirited, more so than we usually hear it, yet, appropriately, sounds evenly paced. The whole thing goes by with a steady forward momentum, its third movement of dance tunes filled with vitality.

By the way, you won't mistake the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra for a modern group because they seem to make you aware at all times of the period instruments they use. You won't find here the smooth sonorities and lush textures of a modern orchestra. Instead, the instruments and the playing tend to sound less polished and more rustic, along with other matters like pitch and tempo and bowing. You either accept the period sound or you don't.

Concerto No. 2 is one of the most popular of the concertos and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in the major part of the playing time. With the Freiburg group No. 2 is quick but never rushed, the music reminding us more than ever that Bach probably intended it as a quartet, since the string accompaniment hardly seem to matter. The trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin do sound good together, with the trumpet never overpowering the other instruments as it often can in recordings. There is a lovely, animated interplay among the instruments, too, leading to an effective job overall, although I thought the final movement too fast for my taste.

Folks probably recognize Concerto No. 3 as well as they do No. 2, maybe even more so; thus, it's important not to upset their expectations. As the Freiburg orchestra do with the other concertos, they lean to alert, rousing tempos throughout. However, their speedy approach only serves to emphasize the fact that the piece has only two movements to begin with, both of them fast, leaving one a little breathless by the end.

Concerto No. 4 is Bach's most playful piece, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure. It always reminds me of children's music for some reason, Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony or something like that. Regardless, for me the performance of No. 4 stood out. It's playful, happy, joyous even, with the Freiburg players appearing to have as good a time with it as Bach must have had writing it. Moreover, the sometimes disparate elements of the score seem more cohesive than ever. It's a most-pleasurable experience.

Concerto No. 5 is another of my personal favorites, highlighting solos from the violin, flute, and harpsichord. Because it requires a minimal ensemble, it ensures a greater clarity of sound. Also, a booklet note reminds us that No. 5 may be the first genuine keyboard concerto in history, and certainly the harpsichord player in this one, Sebastian Wienand, performs in virtuosic style.

Even though Concerto No. 6 seems to me the least distinctive music in the set and uses the smallest ensemble, it never actually feels small. In fact, its only real deficiency is its melodic similarity to Concerto No. 3. Whatever, scored for only a handful of players on strings and harpsichord, the Freiburg musicians help No. 6 go by in zippy fashion. It's clearly of a smaller scale than the other concertos, and one has to commend the viola players especially, as they do a splendid job in the solo parts.

A soft-cardboard slipcover for the plastic two-disc case completes the package.

So, do we have a new winner, displacing my favored Pinnock recording on Avie? Not really. Still, the Freiburg group are worth an audition, particularly for listeners favoring a purely historical approach to their music.

One minor quibble: The orchestra, the record company, or the producer decided to arrange the concertos rather oddly. They put Numbers 1, 6, and 2 on disc one and numbers 3, 5, and 4 on disc two. Now, it's true that despite the present-day numbering of the works, Bach left no instructions for the order of their playing, so it really shouldn't matter in what arrangement an ensemble plays them. But it does matter, if for no other reason than making it easy for the listener to find things on the discs. The present arrangement seems purely arbitrary to me. It doesn't seem to be by chronology or by solo instrument or by the number of players involved. Maybe it's just the way somebody liked hearing them. Who knows.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music at the Ensemblehaus, Freiburg in May, 2013. The sound is extremely spacious, with loads of depth and dimensionality thanks to a moderate miking distance and a good deal of hall resonance. You don't get the best definition this way, but you do get a very realistic sense of presence, a lifelike you-are-there quality that puts you directly into the acoustic environment. Some listeners will find the effect appealing, and others will no doubt find it too reverberant. Otherwise, dynamics and frequency extremes are more than adequate for the occasion and tonal balance is fine, although midrange detail sometimes appears a mite smeared.


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

Mar 16, 2014

Lent at Ephesus (CD review)

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Decca B0019859-02.

They're back.

Lent at Ephesus is the fourth or fifth recording from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, each of them a best-seller. A press release I read about the present album said that it had sold more copies than any piece of music in the history of the planet about eight months before Decca released the disc. Or something like that. I believe it reached the top spots on the record charts its first week of circulation. The Benediction sisters are very, very popular.

And well they should be. Their voices project a purity and innocence that would be the envy of any professional ensemble. What's more, this time out they provide a more-varied program than ever, still highly spiritual but with a greater diversity of composers, from fourteenth-century hermits to Gregorian Chants to traditional hymns, sung in English and Latin and whatever. Better yet, their new disc delivers more material than ever, this one providing twenty-three tracks and clocking in at over seventy-eight minutes, very nearly the limit for a compact disc. That's almost twice the music of their previous albums and a very generous offering, indeed.

Anyway, you'll recall that, as they note in the booklet insert, "the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles is a monastic community located in rural Missouri. Consecrated to the Queen of Apostles, their lives are dedicated to contemplative prayer especially for priests. They support themselves primarily by making priestly vestments. Professing full obedience to the Church's teaching, the community upholds a loving commitment to preserving the liturgical heritage of the Church in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and traditional monastic Office."

As I said about them in a past review, they "possess voices of the sweetest purity. While there may be no obvious virtuosos among them (or if there are, they would be too modest to admit it), as a group they continue to sing like angels, their voices harmonizing with celestial precision." They continue in this manner throughout Lent at Ephesus (Lent being the annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter). The Sisters further tell us that "St. Benedict reminds us that the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent; a life centered around the Cross of Christ. Lent is the season in which we are invited to give our lives to the Lord as He gave His own for us." Nevertheless, whether you are a religious person or not, the Sisters present the songs on the album in such movingly passionate a manner, they would be hard even for even the most-unrepentant sinner to resist.

While individual listeners will have their own favorite numbers among the nearly two dozen offerings found here, of course, I couldn't help pick out a few of my own to share. The first few tracks, "Jesus, My Love," "Christus factus est," and "God of Mercy and Compassion," all reflect the kind of purity and innocence the Sisters' voices convey. There is a simple grace about their presentation that is quite affecting. "Hosanna to the Son of David" is more ambitious, and the harmonies are heavenly.

And so it goes, each track as lovely as the others. The choir's articulation and intonation sound spot on, yet they never appear stuffy or pedantic in their approach. Their voices always float gracefully, and they gently caress the ear. This may be the best album the Sisters have yet made.

Blanton Alspaugh produced and edited the music and Mark Donahue engineered, mixed, and mastered it for De Montfort Music and Decca Classics. They recorded it at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in November, 2013. Maybe it's the miking, but the Sisters sound as though they're in a much bigger hall than they probably really are in. In any case, the room resonance complements their voices, helping them sound rich and smooth while doing nothing to impair their definition. Indeed, the sound is quite flattering, a welcome treat from some vocal recordings that can sound bright and forward. Here, the voices are natural and lifelike, with a touch of depth and dimensionality to put the listener further into the acoustic environment.


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

Mar 13, 2014

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony. Joseph Swensen, conductor & violin; Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Echo BKD 216.

Sometimes, not for lack of trying, I miss the best recordings, at least the first time around. Fortunately, record companies often rerelease their best material, as Linn Records did here with their recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Hebrides Overture, and Scottish Symphony with Joseph Swensen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The performances and sound are a delight.

Maestro Swensen begins the program with the concert overture The Hebrides (or “Fingal’s Cave”), Op. 26, which German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote in 1830 after a walking tour of England and Scotland. Swensen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra do a fine job capturing the rugged grandeur of the Scottish coast, yet they don't do it at the expense of making the music sound more exciting or more melodramatic than it really is. This colorful yet relaxed approach to the score sets the tone for the rest of the items on the program, Swensen building his drama slowly and carefully, so that when the music does reach its climactic moments, it's all the more exhilarating for it.

Next we hear the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. Premiered in 1845, it was Mendelssohn’s last big-scale orchestral work. Swensen not only leads the orchestra, he plays the solo part in the concerto. In both his conducting and his playing Swensen is passionate about his subject. The violin exudes a sweeter, more-intense feeling, especially in the melancholic areas, than we normally hear. What's more, he seems better able to create a sustained flowing line than most conductors, giving the concerto a strong unifying theme. Under Swensen the music appears more emotionally secure than ever, a great outpouring of soul and sentiment that no doubt reflected both Mendelssohn's severe depression and exuberant confidence at the time of its composition.

Finally, we get the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 64. Completed in 1842, it would be Mendelssohn’s last of five symphonies, even though he published it third and thus the numbering we’ve got. A visit to the ruins of a chapel at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh inspired him to write the music. Even though the composer himself referred to the work as his “Scotch” or “Scottish” symphony (he couldn’t seem to make up his own mind about the title but today we generally refer to it with the more politically correct “Scottish”), he never directly quotes any actual Scottish folk tunes. Yet there is a distinctly “Scottish” mood and feeling about the piece that easily reminds us of the Scottish countryside. Of course, that didn’t stop Robert Schumann, when mistakenly thinking he was listening to the Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, from declaring that the Third perfectly mirrored the Italian landscape.

Anyway, After a relatively dark introduction, Swensen practically attacks the score, breathing life into every note, creating fresh, exuberant energy wherever the music takes him. Nevertheless, despite some zippy tempos, he is flexible enough to make the slower contrasts count, and he never impedes the music's onward course.

There are a few other conductors I admire in this work: Peter Maag (Decca and Classic Compact Discs) for his unequalled spirit, Claudio Abbado (DG, but particularly in his earlier Decca recording) for his sheer energy, and Otto Klemperer (EMI/Warner) for his delightfully dignified charm. Still, Swensen loses very little in comparison and brings his own personal touches into play--his obvious compassion, his conviction, his apparent joy and enthusiasm in the score. I found his work in all three Mendelssohn pieces a pleasure.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the music at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK in July 2002, and Linn Records originally released it on CD and SACD in 2003-04. The company rereleased the CD reviewed here in 2014. The audio is gorgeous, maybe the best sound yet afforded these works by anyone. The sound has depth and breadth, dimensionality, air, ambience, you name it. If it contributes to the overall realistic effect of this recording, you can find it here.

By coincidence, my wife and I were fortunate enough to hear the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra perform the Third Symphony live at Zellerbach Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley about a week or so before listening to this recording. In listening to the CD, I was struck by how natural it sounded, how very much like the live performance it appeared. Even the perspective seemed right: a center-row seat at a modest but still close distance from the orchestra. The Linn sound was not unlike my recent experience at Zellerbach--a comfortable, detailed, widespread, dynamic, lifelike affair.


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

Mar 12, 2014

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Mary Dunleavy, soprano; Elizabeth Bishop, mezzo-soprano; Stephen Gould, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass. Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Telarc CD-80603.

Despite using the new Urtext Edition edited by Jonathan Del Mar and published by Barenreiter, this 2003 recording of the Ninth Symphony from conductor Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus steers a pretty safe, conservative course through the interpretive mainstream. The new edition corrects hundreds of errors perpetuated over the years, but you’d hardly notice it under Runnicles’ baton. The coupling of moderate tempos and reserved sonics produces a fairly straightforward account of Beethoven’s climatic work.

Although both Runnicles and David Zinman on his Arte Nova recording use the same text, don’t expect anything like the same results. Zinman employs a slightly reduced orchestral force, adopts much faster speeds (approaching period-instruments practice), and his engineers give it a lighter, brighter audio environment to generate a much more electrifying result. Runnicles, on the other hand, is consistently slower than Zinman, favoring long, flowing lines (although not nearly so slow as many older conductors), and he effects a more-tempered performance than some conductors have. Runnicles should appeal to those listeners seeking a modern digital recording of a big orchestra playing a fairly traditional Ninth in a newly revised edition.

I had my doubts about Runnicles in the beginning, though. The opening of the first movement seemed positively glacial, and when the orchestral sound comes to the fore, it appears to be more a matter of the engineer’s hand than the conductor’s. But once he gets started, Runnicles moves the Allegro along splendidly. He also takes Beethoven’s second-movement Scherzo at a sprightly pace, though nothing like Zinman’s or Norrington’s. It’s in the slow movement, the Adagio, that Runnicles is especially careful. He avoids extremes at all costs, coming in at a discreet fifteen minutes. Compare that to Zinman at about eleven minutes and to Solti at almost twenty minutes, and you see what I mean. Then we have the big finale, which caps the festivities in an appropriately grand manner, all cylinders firing, every voice celebrating the joyous conclusion. Perhaps Runnicles’s reading lacks the ultimate distinction of individualism, but if you go for big, conventional interpretations of the Ninth, there’s something here to like.

Telarc’s audio may be another matter. Played softly it doesn’t sound so good. It seems more than a bit muffled and distant and, in the end, quite unremarkable. Turned up a notch or two, however, it comes more to life. Of course, you have to get used to its being softer and fuller than competing recordings, which may be unfair. I compared it to six other discs of the Ninth I had on hand, and all of the others were better defined and more revealing. In fact, returning to the Telarc appeared as though someone had placed a woolen blanket over the speakers. But comparisons can be deceiving because listening to other recordings after the Telarc made some of them sound a bit too high-pitched and brittle. The closest I came to matching the Telarc sound was with an old Philips recording of Jochum and the Concertgebouw, and even that had a more-elevated top end. While it’s possible the new Telarc is simply better balanced than the others, there’s no doubt the more brilliant audio qualities of most rival discs bring out greater definition in voices, particularly.

No, this Runnicles/Telarc recording would not be my own first choice for interpretation or sound. That honor would still go to the likes of Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (HDTT), Eugen Jochum (both EMI and Philips), Georg Solti (Decca), Karl Boehm (DG), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Herbert von Karajan (DG), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Leonard Bernstein (DG), Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI), Roger Norrington (EMI), John Eliot Gardiner, and the like. They’re tough acts to follow, actually, and the final choice may be a matter not only of one’s own musical taste but one’s own sound system. If your system leans toward brightness, the new Runnicles account might, at least sonically, fit right in with it.


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

Mar 10, 2014

Massenet: Ballet Music (CD review)

Ballet music from Bacchus, Herodiade, Thais, and Le Cid. Patrick Gallois, Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573123.

You can’t say you don’t get your money’s worth with this disc. It doesn’t contain just two or three ballet suites from Massenet operas but four. The material totals about seventy-eight minutes of music, close to the limit of a standard CD.

It’s interesting, too, that some composers can write a ton of music and years later people remember them for only a handful of things, if they remember them at all. That is the case with French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912), who wrote a slew of operas popular in his day, most of them soon going out of style. Today, we still hear the occasional performance of Werther, Thais, or Manon, and that’s about it. Except for the ballet suites from several of his operas, which we have on the present disc. These purely orchestral works continue to fascinate listeners, as demonstrated here by Maestro Patrick Gallois and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra.

First up on the program is a suite of ten ballet items from Bacchus, which the composer premiered in Paris in 1909. The music contains romance and adventure in abundance, and Maestro Gallois very competently conjures up all the right ingredients. He is especially persuasive in the love interludes, the sometimes solemn, sometimes playful Initiation scenes, and the final Bacchanale, the latter particularly energetic.

Next is a suite of five ballet selections from Herodiade, which opened in 1881, telling the story of King Herod, his brother's widow, Salome, and John the Baptist. What we get in the suite are exotic dances by girls from Egypt, Babylon, Gaul, and Phoenicia, followed by a melodramatic finale. Gallois keeps it flowing charmingly, even though the music is rather lightweight in nature. Gallois plays up the lush Romanticism of the score and gives us a thrilling conclusion.

After that is a suite of ten ballet numbers from Thais, first performed in 1884, numbers that Massenet added later. The most-famous tune in the opera, of course, is the Act II intermezzo, the Meditation, which, unfortunately, is not a part of the ballet music. The actual ballet selections are some fairly somber pieces, although it offers more variety than the Herodiade ballet selections, Gallois pointing up both the lyricism and the agitation of the score in equal measure. There is remarkable zip and bounce to the conductor's style, making the music as comfortable in listening to it as it is probably to watch on stage.

The final selection is a suite of seven ballet selections from the opera Le Cid, which Massenet premiered in 1885. He based the story on the legendary El Cid Campeador (Rodrigo D#az de Bivar), c.1040–99, the Spanish soldier and hero of the wars against the Moors. The ballet has become the most popular part of the music. If I think this ballet suite is the best thing on the disc, it's probably because I've always thought it was some the most underrated music in the classical field. Massenet captures the spirit of Spain as well as the spirit of the score's heroics, and Gallois communicates it as well as anybody. Well, almost anybody. I still prefer Louis Fremaux's performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI or Klavier), but that's a truly audiophile recording and  neither here nor there. Gallois has the measure of the music and gives us a nicely drawn, deliciously flavorful portrait of the story. You'll find all the color, all the picturesque beauty, and most of the exuberance these ballet numbers have to offer, and Gallois does it with subtlety, elegance, and grace. It's a heady combination.

Producer, engineer, and editor Sean Lewis made the recording at L’Auditori, Pau Casals Hall, Barcelona, Spain in October 2012. So, how did Mr. Lewis do as practically a one-man show? Pretty well, actually. Too often in the past Naxos engineers have provided perfectly acceptable if perfectly bland audio reproduction, usually big and warm and soft. But Lewis gives us a natural, well-defined sound, with plenty of orchestral depth, moderate bass and dynamics, and sparkling highs. It's a welcome change from Naxos's more-ordinary sounding discs and makes for a pleasantly realistic audio experience.


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

Mar 9, 2014

Signs, Games & Messages (CD review)

Music of Janacek, Bartok and Kurtag. Jennifer Koh, violin; Shai Wosner, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 143.

American violinist Jennifer Koh is an adventurous sort, leaning to performances of new and contemporary compositions as well as robust interpretations of old favorites. On Signs, Games & Messages she teams with Israeli pianist Shai Wosner for an album of twentieth-century works by Janacek, Bartok, and Kurtag that amply demonstrates her flexible playing style and enterprising spirit.

Koh and Wosner tell us in a booklet note that “Each work on this album inhabits two worlds: the influence of folklore on one hand and the composer’s striking originality on the other. As a duo, we wanted to create a program that explores these intertwined stands of musical DNA, the tension between the visionary modernism of these masterpieces, and the visceral pull of folk and cultural memory that is so essential to the language of these composers.” Each of the composers on the disc embraces modern musical techniques while also acknowledging the traditional music of their native lands.

The first thing the duo tackle is the Sonata for Violin and Piano, JW VII/7 by Czech composer Leo Janacek (1854-1928). He wrote it in 1914, at the outset of the First World War in Europe; Janacek said of it, "...I could just about hear the sound of the steel clashing in my troubled head...." In the Sonata, Janacek plays with the rhythms of speech-melody, taken he said from the cadences of indigenous folk tunes. You hear in Koh and Wosner's playing abrupt stops and starts, just as Janacek intended and which give the music a distinctively different quality from most music of the era. The pair of performers do justice to the Sonata's free-flowing ideas, from an aching melancholy through a quick, excitable agitation, all the while maintaining the composer's melodic lines.

Next, Koh and Wosner offer a series of short items, mostly for violin and piano and a few for piano alone, from Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag (b. 1924). With these miniatures we hear Kurtag at his most ambitious and most risky, the music at once creative yet fairly accessible. Sometimes the music sounds distinctly European; other times it seems almost American folklike. Koh and Wosner give it plenty of time to develop, creating wonderfully colorful little sound pictures: eerie, haunting, playful, many as soft as a whisper, a few more loud and clamorous. Like me, you may enjoy "Fundamentals No. 2," especially, a thirty-second piece featuring vocal sounds, one labeled "unpleasant." Likewise with "A Hungarian Lesson for Foreigners." They made me smile.

Finally, we get the First Sonata for Violin and Piano, Sz. 75 by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). As with the previous selections, Koh and Wosner play the Bartok with passion and repose, even though the music itself is perhaps the most consciously "twentieth-century modern" of the works on the program. Odd, perhaps, given that Kurtag is obviously more contemporary than Bartok, yet Kurtag actually sounds more traditional, for all his inventiveness. Anyway, Koh and Wosner provide a good deal of pleasure with their intimate intertwining of instruments, from stormy to quiet to almost meditative.

Producer-engineer Judith Sherman and editor Bill Maylone made the recording at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City in April and October, 2012. If you've been following my reviews of Cedille products over the years, you know I think highly of their audio reproduction. This one is no exception and sounds splendid. Both the piano and violin appear well focused and well balanced with one another, neither too close nor too far away. There is in addition to the fine clarity a small but helpful hint of room resonance, which provides a pleasant ambient bloom to the sound. Add to that a wide dynamic range, a quick transient response, and a realistic decay time, and you get a recording that pretty much puts the artists in your living room.


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

Mar 6, 2014

Sojourn: The Very Best of Xuefei Yang (CD review)

Xuefei Yang, guitar. Elias String quartet; Eiji Oue, Orquestra Simphonica de Barcelona I Nacional de Catalunya. Warner Classics 2564 63662-1.

If you’re already a fan of Chinese classical guitarist Xuefei Yang, you probably won’t need this “Best of” album because no doubt you already have all the albums from which Warner Classics took the selections here. However, you are not familiar with Ms. Yang’s work, Sojourn: The Very Best of Xuefei Yang might be a great place to start.

Born in 1977 in Beijing, Ms. Yang started playing the guitar at the age of seven. By age ten, she was studying under the guidance of Chen Zhi, the Chairman of the China Classical Guitar Society. She made her initial public performance at the First China International Guitar Festival, and from there began winning various international prizes and awards. Subsequently, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Central Conservatory of Music, going on to become the first Chinese guitarist to study in the United Kingdom and the first guitarist to receive an international scholarship from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music for her postgraduate programme at the Royal Academy of Music in London, graduating in 2002. She has been performing on the concert stage and recording for EMI (now Warner Classics) ever since.

Among the first things one notices about Ms. Yang’s playing is that it appears lighter, airier, more ethereal and delicate than many of her rivals. You won’t quite find the same kind of brawny musicianship you get with Julian Bream, John Williams, Milos Karadaglic, David Russell, Andres Segovia, or any of the Romeros. And one must count that a good thing; Ms. Yang is her own person, with her own style, casting her own magical spells on the listener. Certainly, she’s cast that spell far and wide if her record sales are any indication. So, in Sojourn you get a pretty good idea of what the appeal of her musicianship is all about.

Ms. Yang seems to have a penchant for sweet, romantic tones, amply demonstrated in the opening number, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. It comes off very beautifully but more delightful than contemplative. Next, we hear Bach's Siciliano, a transcription from the Harpsichord Concerto in E. Again, Yang takes a smooth, graceful approach, certainly lovely but not entirely as biting or incisive as I would have liked. Obviously, personal taste is going to matter even more in appreciating Ms. Yang's guitar interpretations than it does in admiring many other kinds of performances.

And so it goes, each track apparently chosen for its comforting, spiritual qualities in order to sell new listeners on the beauty of Ms. Yang's view of music. Bach's Air on a G String from the Second Orchestral Suite, for instance, sounds as gentle as a feather, as does Bach's Prelude in C.

Perhaps best of all, though, and benefiting the most from Ms. Yang's manner of playing are the items taken from older Chinese works: The Butterfly Lovers, Plum Blossoms in the Snow, and others. They are quite delicious. I also enjoyed her playing of various Spanish pieces, among them Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra, Albeniz's Tango, and Rodrigo's Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez. Maybe it's all in the material, and maybe it's just me and I prefer Spanish music on the guitar. I dunno. Still, there are times when Ms. Yang's approach is just a tad too sentimental for my liking, but that's just me. Others will find it dreamily intoxicating, I'm sure.

The sound, recorded between 2006 and 2012, varies, of course, but not very much given that the tracks derive from a number of different recording sessions and venues over a decade or so of recording. Some of the selections sound a little soft, warm, and dry to me, but most of them sound rich, clear, and pleasantly resonant.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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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