Apr 30, 2014

Mozart: The Late Symphonies (CD review)

Nos. 25, 29, 35, 36, 38, 39, 40, and 41. Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 474 349-2 (3-disc set).

When conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein left the New York Philharmonic his performances by and large tended to change. Especially after he took up with the Vienna Philharmonic, his interpretations seemed to slow down considerably, lose some of the electric charge that drove his earlier work. Some people attributed this to age and called the later readings "mature." Others just thought he was getting old and tired. Not so, however, with these mid 1980s' recordings of the late Mozart symphonies, reissued by DG in 2003. Like the live performances I was privileged to hear from him around this time period, the recordings show no signs of anything slowing down whatsoever.

Taken as a whole, this set is undoubtedly one of the best all-around collections of late Mozart symphonies available today, and they come in DG's low-priced Trio series, a bargain by any standards. Every piece of music on the three discs sounds exactly right. Not only right, but sometimes downright wondrous. Nos. 36 and 41, for instance, the gems of the set, are never ordinary yet they feel comfortably worn. The tempos are perfectly judged, the caressing inflections lovingly applied, the outer movements spirited, the slow movements gentle and lilting. These symphonies are noble and uplifting, delicate and soothing as the occasion demands. This is the Bernstein of old: romantic and nostalgic, open and bighearted. I had heard only his VPO "Jupiter" before coming to this set, and I was mightily impressed by the rest of the box.

Yes, there were other conductors for whom one could make a case for better (or more appealing) interpretations of individual symphonies. We cannot discount the likes of Bohm, Walter, Klemperer, Karajan, Barenboim (my own favorite), Marriner, and the like in particular works. But taken overall, it's hard to say that any of them surpassed Bernstein.

The only minor snag in this three-disc, budget-priced set is some of DG's sound. I say "some" because it varies. Half of the pieces Bernstein recorded live, as he was fond of doing, and it shows. The live recordings, Nos. 35, 39, 40, and 41, seem slightly more recessed, more distantly miked, producing a softer, mellower, and occasionally more hollow sound. The recordings made without an audience appear better detailed, though not always more realistic. Nevertheless, I preferred the cleaner, clearer sonics of the absent audience. You'll hear the difference immediately, as those done without an audience also have the appearance of being a touch louder in volume.

In any case, I wouldn't worry overmuch about the sound. The performances are solidly in the grand tradition, the glorious Vienna forces playing superbly as always, and Bernstein at the top of his game.


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

Apr 28, 2014

Locatelli: Concerti Grossi, Op. 1 (CD review)

Elizabeth Wallfisch and Nicholas Kraemer, The Raglan Baroque Players. Hyperion Dyad CDD22066 (2-disc set).

The problem these days with most composers of the Baroque period (roughly from 1600-1750) is that the bulk of them pale in the shadow of a popular few like Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi in particular, with Albinoni, Corelli, Monteverdi, Purcell, Pachelbel, Rameau, Scarlatti, Telemann, and occasional others bringing up the rear. In fact, by the late eighteenth century Baroque composers in general had fallen out of favor with the public, and it would not be until well into the twentieth century that musicians and musical scholars rediscovered many of them.

So, where does that leave the Italian Baroque composer and violinist Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764)? I'd say "rediscovered," thanks to people like Maestro Nicholas Kraemer and his Raglan Baroque Players on the present recording. (The Raglan Players got their name from a former patron, Fitzroy Somerset, the 5th Lord Raglan, and the Players made several recordings, mainly for Hyperion, during a twenty-odd-year partnership during the Seventies, Eighties, and early Nineties.) The ensemble perform with a great deal of finesse yet maintain a lively style, with Mr. Kraemer conducting from harpsichord and organ and Elizabeth Wallfisch doing the lead violin parts.

Anyway, about Locatelli: Scholars don't know a lot about him, except that he began studying in Rome around 1711, where he debuted as a composer, publishing the Concerti Grossi, Op. 1 in 1721. They were probably among his first published works, and they continue to remain among his most popular. The Op. 1 Concerti appear to owe much to Arcangelo Corelli, already an established composer and violinist when Locatelli was just beginning his career. Concerto No. 8, for instance, ending with the Christmas Pastorale, seems especially reminiscent of Corelli's famous work.

The trouble with all this is minor at best: mainly, a little goes a long way. With twelve Concerto Grossi in this two-disc set, each with between three and seven brief movements, listened to all at once they can begin to take on a sameness that may become wearying. But that's what CD players are for; you can program favorite pieces for playback during a single listening session. At least, once you've decided what your favorites are. (For a single-disc, best-of collection of Op. 1 Concerto Grossi, you might consider Gottfried von der Goltz and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi.)

As for Mr. Kraemer, Ms. Wallfisch, and the Raglan band, they do their best to keep things moving along at a brisk yet elegant pace. However, one might feel that the ensemble's historically informed tempos and phrasing can at times rob the music of some of its more lyrical qualities. In other words, it isn't always as graceful as it could be.

I liked the first Concerto Grosso because it sets the tone for the rest of the pieces in the set. The tempos remain well judged throughout, energetic without being tiring. Some of the slow movements could perhaps have been a tad slower and used a bit more sentiment, but it is of no serious significance. Ms. Wallfisch's playing is sprightly and alert, and the ensemble project a radiant and pleasingly stylish refinement.

The second concerto grosso seems more sedate than the first one, but that's probably what Locatelli wanted. No complaints here. No. 3 shows a Vivaldi influence, much to its advantage. It is among my favorites of the bunch. No. 4 appears more varied than most of the others and shows more invention than one might expect.

And so it goes, with No. 8 a highlight of the set, thanks largely to that influence of Corelli, who was undoubtedly Locatelli's inspiration. But for that matter, all the concerti grossi on the album are entertaining. If you enjoy Baroque music, the performances and sound shouldn't disappoint.

Engineer Antony Howell and producer Martin Compton recorded the music in June and September 1994, and Hyperion rereleased the set in 2014 as part of their Dyad series, offering two discs for the price of one. The sound is nicely resonant without clouding much detail, the smallish numbers of players involved in each concerto helping with the definition as well. There's a modestly wide stereo spread, a fair sense of air around the instruments, and a smooth, warm glow around everything. It's a good, natural sound, pleasing to the ear and reasonably realistic to the occasion.


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

Apr 27, 2014

Some Other Time (CD review)

Music of Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Foss. Zuill Bailey, cello; Lara Downes, piano. Steinway & Sons 30025.

What more could you ask for than a collaboration between preeminent cellist Zuill Bailey and innovative pianist Lara Downes? I've admired their work separately for several years already, and now they've produced an album together.

For the present album of tunes by Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Foss, Mr. Bailey plays a 1693 Mateo Goffriller cello and Ms. Downes a Steinway Model D, so not only do we get a couple of the finest musicians in the world playing the music, they do it on a couple of the finest musical instruments possible. Kind of a two-for-one deal, which isn't even counting the superb quality of the music itself. And just to make myself clear, the music, the performances, and the sound are extraordinary.

In a booklet note, Ms. Downes says "The transcriptions and concert pieces collected here are all big, beautiful examples of nostalgic American music. But this is timeless music, too, its romanticism, spirit of adventure, playfulness and purity tap into our collective memory, our underlying, ongoing, deeply American nostalgia for what we all know simply as some other time." The nostalgia is for the four American composers represented on the program and for a "golden" time in American culture when concert music held a more-important place than it does today. As such, the music is romantic, adventurous, sweet, and utterly delightful, presented lovingly by the two star performers.

The first three items come to us from the pen of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein: "Dream With Me" from the 1950 Broadway production of Peter Pan; "Some Other Time" from the 1944 musical On the Town; and "In Our Time," an unused song only recently published. All three are lushly nostalgic and appropriately sentimental. And they're exquisitely beautiful, with Bailey and Downes providing just the right amount of wistfulness and melancholy without the music becoming maudlin or melodramatic.

Next up we find Samuel Barber's Sonata for Cello and Piano, written in 1932. There's a haunting beauty about the piece, poignant at first and then becoming ever more lighthearted before settling back into a somewhat heavier concluding mood. After that, Bailey and Downes give us their take on one of Barber's most-popular songs, "Sure on This Shining Night," the performance giving us a delightfully lyrical dialogue between voice (cello) and piano.

Following those numbers, we have a couple of works by Lucas Foss, the first, "For Lenny," is a 1988 tribute to Bernstein, borrowing the style of his West Side Story and given a charming interpretation by Bailey and Downes. Then there's Foss's Capriccio for Cello and Piano, a sort of tribute to the music of Aaron Copland, borrowing its style from things like Rodeo and Billy the Kid. Bailey and Downes provide it with plenty of good-natured spunk and vigor.

Three more Bernstein numbers follow: "For Lucas Foss" (a lot of crossbreeding here); the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, the composer's first published piece; and "For Aaron Copland."

The performers conclude the album with two selections from that most "American" of American composers, Aaron Copland: "Simple Gifts," the Shaker tune Copland used in his 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring; and the traditional ballad "Long Time Ago" from Old American Songs. With them Bailey and Downes provide a pleasingly evocative and highly satisfying ending to the proceedings.

Producer Daniel Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in September 2013. The sound is gorgeous, the cello richly expressive, the piano every bit as impressive. The two musicians sit with the cello on the left, piano slightly to the right, with both instruments showing up clearly and brilliantly. Moreover, they sound so realistic, you'd think they were live in the room with you. It's all as perfect as the music itself.


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

Apr 24, 2014

James Brawn in Recital, Volume 1 (CD review)

Music of Mussorgsky, Bach-Busoni, Liszt, and Rachmaninov. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1501.

Although British pianist James Brawn is hardly a young man anymore (b. 1971), he has only recently begun a recording career with MSR Classics, so I suppose you can excuse people like myself for not recognizing his name until now. But belated or no, he appears to be off to a flying start with his first few albums. He's been winning awards since he was a child, teaching, and performing (mainly in New Zealand, Australia, and England) to great acclaim, and this new recording makes one understand his appeal. He is a consummate artist.

Mr. Brawn begins his recital on Volume 1 (of what will presumably be a series of such concerts) with the Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). A chaconne is an early dance form, probably Spanish in origin, in moderate triple meter, this one the concluding item from a set or suite of numbers for violin. Ferruccio Busoni arranged the piece for piano in 1893, and pianists have cherished it ever since.

The variations within the Chaconne allow Brawn the flexibility to offer a brilliant display of pianism, the artistry always present yet never interfering with or distracting from the music itself. Brawn's performance is alternately dark and dramatic, the pianist responding quickly and delicately to each new inflection in the score.

After that are two works by Franz Liszt (1811-1886), starting with the familiar Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which is about as opposite the preceding Bach as you can get, filled as it is with Romantic, melodramatic touches. While the very devil is in the fiddle here, as it should be, Brawn is careful not to exaggerate the ornate flourishes for pure show. The piece is a little symphonic poem that gracefully yet energetically tells its story of Faust and Mephistopheles at a wedding party. Brawn's interpretation brings out all the lush, eerie beauty in the piece, as well as the passion and excitement.

Then comes the only slightly less-familiar Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major. If it reminds you of Chopin's Nocturne No. 2, as it did me, it's no coincidence. Not only are the tone, tempo, and key the same, the melody itself is quite similar. In Brawn's hands, it's exquisitely beautiful and expressive.

Next, we come to the centerpiece of the recital, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) in its original piano score. Of course, the piece wouldn't really become as popular as it is today without its various and later orchestral transcriptions, but the piano version is no slouch, either. Obviously, it's the most pictorial of the works on the program, featuring a gallery of portraits that describe people, places, and events. It requires the pianist create little tone pictures of diverse moods and character, a process in which Mr. Brawn succeeds admirably.

Here's also where Brawn gets to show off a bit, with each portrait perfectly judged and perfectly well characterized. Sections that stood out for me include the mysteriousness of "The Old Castle," the humor of "The Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks," the hustle and bustle of "The Marketplace," the creepiness of "The Catacombs," and the exhilaration of "The Hut on Fowl's Legs." I would liked to have heard a bit more splendor and grandeur in "The Great Gate of Kiev," but otherwise this is among the best piano versions of the Mussorgsky piece I've experienced.

Finally, Brawn closes the recital with the Prelude in B minor by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and the Prelude in C Major by J.S. Bach, which brings us full circle. Brawn's program is impressively varied, showing off all of the pianist's technical prowess as well as his sensitivity to the nuances of the piano. His playing is virtuosic and exciting at times, yet soft and lyrical when necessary. But most of all, it's simply fun to listen to. Fans of piano music cannot miss.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan made the recording for MSR Classics at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK in August 2012. The piano sounds crisply articulated, with solid impact and a firm transient response, without being bright or forward in any way. Moreover, we hear a pleasantly mild ambient bloom around the notes, making the sound not only well defined but moderately warm and natural, too. The miking is not so close as to stretch the piano across the room, making for an even more realistic presentation.


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

Apr 23, 2014

Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Oboe and Violin Concerto. Hilary Hahn, violin; Jeffrey Kahane, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. DG B0000986-02.

This is one I nominated some years ago for a "Best of the Year" award. At least, it was an award winner with me. Except for a minor reservation about the sound, I can still recommend the disc with almost complete assurance.

Perhaps because Ms. Hahn was relatively young at age twenty-three when she recorded these pieces in 2002-03, she was able to bring to them a youthful vitality that is sometimes missing in the performances of older artists. Yet the vitality in no way suggests immaturity or reckless abandon. Indeed, it brings to the works a contemporary feeling, making them sound as though written in and for our own era. Ms. Hahn makes all three of Bach's familiar Violin Concertos sound new again through her lively, spirited, yet thoughtful interpretations.

I suppose some listeners might quibble that Ms. Hahn takes things a bit faster than most older, more-traditional violinists do, but her performances are much in keeping with today's historically informed style, though not as frenetic as some period-instruments groups perform the pieces. Anyway, if the Violin and Oboe Concerto that accompanies the Violin Concertos seems a bit more conservative by comparison, it is no less persuasive.

Ms. Hahn leads off Bach's three Violin Concertos on the album with possibly the most popular of the bunch, the E Major, BWV 1042, with its well-known opening movement running along as briskly yet as attractively as I've heard it. Of course, all three of the Violin Concertos begin with showstopping opening movements, followed by sublimely beautiful slow movements, and concluding with brash, often overexuberant finales. Even though I've never cared much for those finales as much as the rest of the music, even here Ms. Hahn brings a delightful sense of fun to the occasion, and she's splendidly accompanied by Jeffrey Kahane and the strings of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

My only quibble I alluded to earlier: it's about the depth of the sound, which is almost nil. The instruments are pretty much strung out along a straight line from left to right, with little sense of the group's size or shape. Otherwise, the sound is warm, smooth, well defined, terrifically well-balanced, and easy on the ear. For a modern recording of these Bach works played on modern instruments, this remains one of the best current choices, slightly eclipsing Grumiaux's old Philips recording in sound quality and almost everybody else in performance.


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

Apr 21, 2014

Mozart: Symphony No. 35 "Haffner" (CD review)

Also, Serenade in D Major "Posthorn"; March No. 1. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien. Sony 88883720682.

In 1953 with his wife Alice, Austrian cellist and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded the Concentus Musicus Wien, which is now the world's oldest continuously performing period-instruments ensemble. That they are still recording after all these years is remarkable in itself; that they are still producing as vigorous and historically informed performances as we find on this 2014 Sony release is doubly remarkable.

Maestro Harnoncourt starts off the program with Mozart's little March No. 1 in D Major, K.335, a brief but energetic piece that serves as an appropriate curtain-raiser for the album. Given Harnoncourt's years (b. 1929) he leads a sprightly performance. There appears to be no slowing down with age for him, for good or for bad depending on your point of view about such things. Moreover, even though the band itself must have turned over many times, they sound as lively and attentive as ever. Maybe more so, as they appear more spry as the decades pass.

Next, we get Mozart's Serenade for Orchestra No. 9 in D Major, K. 320, also called the "Posthorn Serenade." It consists of seven movements: an Adagio, a Minuetto, an Andantino, a Rondeau, an Andante, another Minuetto, and a Finale. Mozart wrote the piece in 1779, and it got its nickname from the use of a post horn in the second minuet, the piece also featuring an oboe, flute, and flautino prominently.

I mentioned earlier that Harnoncourt leads a lively performance of the march, and he does likewise in the "Posthorn." Understand, however, that I'm not necessarily referring to ultrafast tempos. Indeed, Harnoncourt takes things at an easy, listenable pace most of the time, never leaving one breathless as some period performances can. Instead, the conductor seems intent on drawing out all the melodic lines as well as emphasizing the rhythms in as cozy a manner as possible, even though he can attack the contrasts with vigor. The result I might better describe as being alive, perhaps not the most exciting reading you'll ever hear, but one that's entertaining, with an ever-so-slightly darker tone as well.

Finally, we get the center attraction, the Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385 (or the "Haffner" Symphony because a prominent Salzburg family, the Haffners, commissioned it). Mozart wrote the work in 1782, taking much of the material from an earlier piece he had written for the Haffner family, the equally famous "Haffner" Serenade.

Mozart wrote of the Haffner Symphony that "The first Allegro must be really fiery, the last as fast as possible." Here, Harnoncourt follows the composer's instructions well enough, although he varies the tempo internally so much that it never sounds as frenetic as it sometimes can. Harnoncourt produces undoubted thrills without resorting to a completely all-out attack on our sensibilities.

The succeeding Andante is as gracefully lyrical as Harnoncourt can make it without slowing it down to a crawl. The movement has a lovely lilt to it, a sweet dance-like quality that quickly and easily pleases the ear, and it's probably the highlight of the Harnoncourt program.

The conductor gets the Minuetto off to an appropriately forceful start before settling down to its more tranquil main theme, at which point it's reasonably lovely. Thankfully, Harnoncourt doesn't take the finale "as fast as possible," which would simply leave one panting for breath and destroy the score's musical integrity in the progress, so he compromises a tad, still providing plenty of vigorous momentum while slowing down enough to let the music breathe a little.

Of course, the bottom line for any new recording of an old warhorse is whether it's worth buying yet version of something one already has. I mean, given that practically every major conductor of the past sixty years has recorded the Haffner Symphony and the Posthorn Serenade in stereo, the competition is great. However, when you consider the number of period-instruments recordings there are of these works, the field becomes considerably smaller. Then when you consider the experience and authority Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his players bring to the works, maybe the recording is at least deserving of a listen.

Producer Martin Sauer and engineer Michael Brammann recorded the music at the Great Hall of the Viennese Music Association, Vienna in December 2012. The sound they obtained is moderately close but without much edginess, harshness, or bright forwardness. In fact, it's pleasingly warm and mildly resonant, yet with a reasonably good degree of detail, too, a strong transient response, and a modest orchestral depth. It may not be absolute top-drawer audiophile sound but it is comfortable and revealing all the same.


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

Apr 20, 2014

Recomposed by Max Richter (CD review)

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons. Also, Shadows 1-5; "Remixes." Daniel Hope, violin; Andre de Ridder, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin. DG 479 2776 (CD + DVD).

I don't suppose there's anything new under the sun, and every now and then even the not-so-new becomes new again. Such is the case with British composer Max Richter's reimagining of Vivaldi's perennial favorite The Four Seasons, which Richter recomposed for solo violin, Moog synthesizer, and chamber orchestra. He premiered it at London's Barbican Centre in October 2012, and it soon picked up a huge following for its reductive approach to the old warhorse. Richter has said he discarded about three-quarters of Vivaldi's original material, and the parts he does use he phased and looped, which recall the composer's roots in minimalist and postmodern music.

Whether you'll like Richter's approach, however, is a pretty big question mark. If you can accept his newly reconstructed view for itself, you may just find it fascinating fun. If you're a traditionalist who doesn't appreciate modern musicians messing with established classics, you may hate it. In its favor, and in kind of a bizarre twist of fate, the recording has noted violinist Daniel Hope playing the solo part on a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin, Richter on a Moog, and Maestro Andre de Ridder leading the Berlin Konzerthaus Chamber Orchestra in accompaniment.

In a booklet note, Richter explains that he "wanted to get inside the score at the level of the notes and in essence rewrite it, re-composing it in a literal way." Fair enough. He opens the music with what he describes as "a dubby cloud which I've called 'Spring 0.' It serves as a sort of prelude, setting up an electronic, ambient space for the first 'Spring' movement to step into. I've used electronics in several movements, subtle, almost inaudible tings to do with the bass, but I wanted certain moments to connect to the whole electronic universe that is so much part of our musical language today." OK.

Concerning other movements, Richter tells us he wanted to convey the feeling of contemporary dance music and also the style of various pop bands of the 60's and 70's like the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Then he says he thinks the regular patterns of Vivaldi's music connect with his own brand of post-minimalism. He feels it's a natural link between Vivaldi and himself. "Even so," he continues, "it was surprisingly difficult to navigate my way through it. At every point I had to work out how much is Vivaldi and how much is me." And that is the point at issue here, isn't it? How much will a listener enjoy Richter at the expense of Vivaldi and vice versa?

In all fairness, if you keep an open mind and think of this as newly composed music rather than any kind of reinterpretation of Vivaldi, you're likely to enjoy it more. Violinist Daniel Hope takes it all very seriously, as he should, and conveys a sweet note throughout the selections. Although some listeners may feel the antique instrument he plays seems wasted on so little of Vivaldi, I wouldn't count too heavily Richter's claim that he threw out three-fourths of Vivaldi's music. The fact is, much of Vivaldi remains, though some of it repetitiously, and Hope plays it assuredly and sympathetically.

Disregarding the Moog, which doesn't play as big a part in the proceedings as you might expect, this is essentially an old-fashioned reading of Vivaldi, the slow movements taken at fairly slow, steady speeds, with large doses of soft sentimentality along the way, and the fast movements taken at lively, spirited tempos. Whether the performances capture all the vivid color of Vivaldi's tone pictures is still open to question, but there's no denying the arrangements and performances of the works are unique and worth a listen.

In addition to Richter's reimagining of The Four Seasons, the CD includes several other works: Shadows 1-5, a series of "electronic soundscapes" by Richter, and "Remixes" of The Seasons by Richter, Robot Koch, Fear of Tigers, and NYPC. All of them are brief, but they are imaginative and fun.

The advantage of the current 2014 edition of the album over the one DG released in 2012 is that now you get not only the compact disc of the music but a DVD of Hope, Richter, and L'Arte del Mondo (with conductor Werner Ehrhardt) performing the work live in 2013. So, you not only get to hear the score but see a filmed presentation of the musicians playing it, and the cost of the CD + DVD edition is only a little more than the single-disc edition.

In terms of sound, we'll concentrate on the Vivaldi CD work, which Richter produced and Neil Hutchinson engineered at b-sharp Studios, Berlin, in March 2012. Given the degree of electronic augmentation, the sound quality is quite good, showcasing not only a natural ambiance but a spacious, dimensional one as well. The sound of the Moog is reasonably clear and clean, and the sound of the orchestra is warm and well rounded, flattering to the ear if a little soft on inner detailing.


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

Apr 17, 2014

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Prince Rostislav. Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics 50999 4 09596 2 7.

Of Sergei Rachmaninov's (1873-1943) three symphonies, the Second (1907) has always since its inception received the most love, the Third (1936) its fair share, and the First (1895) the least attention. It may just reflect the appeal of the three works; the Second is by far the most Romantic and most accessible; the Third a little less so; the First the least attractive of the three for many listeners. Besides, the First had its problems from the very beginning, the premiere being a total failure by any measure, thanks to an underpowered and underprepared performance from conductor and composer Alexander Glazunov. The experience so unnerved Rachmaninov he had a nervous breakdown, and no one gave the piece another public performance until 1945, several years after the composer's death. Today, we have a number of fine recordings of the music, of which we must count Vasily Petrenko's with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic one. But it's no accident that Petrenko finishes up his recordings of the three symphonies with this one; apparently, he was no taking chances by opening the series with the First.

I confess that I can only remember hearing Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 three times in my life, all from recordings. They are Andre Previn's account with the London Symphony on EMI, Vladimir Ashkenazy's rendering with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca, and Mikhail Pletnev's reading with the Russian National Orchestra on DG. Of those three, Previn seems the best recorded, Ashkenazy the most exciting, and Pletnev the most lyrical. Now, we have Petrenko, who tends to combine the best of all three worlds in a well-recorded performance of passion and restraint.

The composer marks the first movement Grave--Allegro ma non troppo, meaning it should begin in a serious, even solemn manner and proceed to something a bit more up-tempo though not too much. Petrenko brings out the varied contrasts in the opening movement, from the bang-up clutter of the start, through the more-exotic moods of the middle section, to the almost-frenzied latter half, to the forceful yet essentially peaceful conclusion. Indeed, the conductor shows he has a strong control over the work's design, with its nod toward the popular orientalism of the day, something Petrenko demonstrates throughout the symphony.

The second movement is an Allegro animato, obviously a brisk, well-animated tempo. It's a relatively brief scherzo that Petrenko handles with a surprising moderation. While he doesn't whip up quite the passion that Ashkenazy does, he does keep the pressure on, varying the tempo and tone substantially enough to maintain one's interest. This is a more-nuanced interpretation than you might expect, given the material.

The third movement is a Larghetto, a somewhat slow-paced affair. The leisurely, softly lit melody is quite lovely in Petrenko's hands, maybe the highlight of the symphony. It offers hints of the great, rhapsodic sweeps of color the composer would exhibit in his later works.

Then Rachmaninov goes out with an Allegro con fuoco, literally a fast movement with fire. This ornate finale brings the symphony to a jovial conclusion, with an abundance of youthful enthusiasm from the composer, who was just in his early twenties when he wrote the music. Petrenko sensibly keeps most of the bombast under wraps and ends the piece in broad strokes, the lush tunes luminous and satisfying.

Accompanying the First Symphony (actually, preceding it) Maestro Petrenko gives us the symphonic poem Prince Rostislav. This little-heard work dates from 1891, written while Rachmaninov was still in school. It shows clearly the influence of Tchaikovsky, as we might expect of a work by a young Russian student of the time. The story involves a knight fallen in battle, lying on the bank of a river, water nymphs caressing his hair, as the dying soldier strives to call his wife and family around him. It's all very melodramatic, yet Maestro Petrenko manages to makes us feel the action in a most-sympathetic manner, and the whole thing makes a fascinating and emotionally engaging experience.

Producer Andrew Cornall and engineers Philip Siney and David Pigott made the recording in concert at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England in 2013. A symphony hall has existed on the spot since around 1846, and the present hall since 1939. It offers a nice acoustic, with a mild resonance bringing out the richness of the orchestra. Since the engineers recorded it live, we get the occasional audience noise; otherwise, everything from the orchestra sounds fairly well articulated, well defined, and just a tad sharp and bright. Still, the slight brightness provides for plenty of detail, and it's not particularly objectionable. Frequency extremes, dynamic range, and, especially, impact are all adequate for the event. Depth and dimensionality are modest, though, so don't expect the absolute ultimate in realism, just good, clean sound from a live recording. Thankfully, there is no applause involved.


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

Apr 16, 2014

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also, Gluck: Overture to Iphigenie en Aulide; Humperdinck: Overture to Hansel und Gretel. Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia and Philharmonia Orchestras. EMI 7243 5 62622 2.

Of Bruckner's last six, most-important symphonies, the Sixth is among his least performed and least recorded. I suppose there are reasons for that, most prominent of which is its not sounding much like the rest of the stuff the man wrote. The work is not really as awe-inspiring or as structurally coherent as Bruckner's other famous symphonies, and it is to Otto Klemperer's credit that he was able to make as much out of it as he did. This 1964 recording is one of the best we'll probably ever get.

The first movement has always reminded me of the score to some epic movie. Maybe twentieth-century film composers looked to the nineteenth-century Bruckner for ideas. It wouldn't be the first time. Klemperer takes it in a broad, grand sweep. The second-movement Adagio is far more placid than the first, but it hasn't quite the ethereal, otherworldly inspiration that marks some of Bruckner's best slow movements. Here, Klemperer is fairly direct and not a little quick paced. The Scherzo is actually the first point in the symphony that the composer seems himself, the movement being a restless contrast of grandiose reflections and serene respites and, interestingly, a possible inspiration for the later Scherzos of Mahler. The Finale barely hangs together in many other conductors' hands, but Klemperer seems to make it all of a piece. Indeed, Klemperer so loved this symphony he practically made it his own, championing it long before most of Bruckner's music had come back into favor.

A booklet note tells us that Klemperer's longtime producer, Walter Legge, would never let him record the Sixth because he didn't think audiences were ready for it. When Legge disbanded the old Philharmonia Orchestra and the ensemble quickly reformed without him, Klemperer got his way and sans Legge made the Sixth a priority. I have to admit that even though I can't remember enough of the Sixth to hum a note, I have always admired, nay, loved, Klemperer's way with it. With his usual granitelike style, he seems to make it all hang together and work better than most anyone.

Along with the Sixth come the overture to Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel and Wagner's arrangement of Gluck's Overture to Iphigenie en Aulide. Here, Klemperer is on slightly less-sure ground, yet the performances come over with more than adequate passion and glow.

EMI (now Warner Classics) recorded the Bruckner in 1964 at Kingsway Hall, London with producer Peter Andry and balance engineer Robert Gooch. The sound they obtained is possibly no less accountable for the recording's success than Klemperer's conducting. Remastered in 2003 using EMI's Abbey Road Technology and a part of the "Great Recordings of the Century" series, the Sixth Symphony sounds smoother and more natural than ever, appearing for all the world as good as or better than most new classical releases. However, EMI recorded the two accompanying pieces, the overtures to Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide and Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel, about four years earlier in 1960, and they sound leaner and, consequently, brighter. They haven't quite the warmth and realism the Bruckner does, but Klemperer well characterizes them all the same.


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

Apr 14, 2014

Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 4 (CD review)

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Il Turco in Italia, et al. Christian Benda, Prague Sinfonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.572735.

Maestro Christian Benda and the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra continue their march through the complete overtures of Italian composer Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792–1868) with this fourth and final installment of selections. As before, Benda gives us a couple of well-known pieces and fills out the rest of the program with lesser-known items. And, as always, he does them up splendidly.

Here's the thing, though: There is still Sir Neville Marriner's complete, three-disc set to consider on Philips; yes, a long-gone label but one still available new and used for a reasonable (sometimes absurdly low) price. And if it's only a single disc of the most-popular overtures one is interested in, there are excellent bargains from the likes of, again, Marriner (Philips, PentaTone, or EMI), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), Piero Gamba (Decca or JVC), Peter Maag (HDTT), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Sir Roger Norrington (EMI), and others. Nevertheless, Benda's performances stand up to the best, and the Naxos sound and price are right.

In The Barber of Seville we get a typically robust, responsive reading from Maestro Benda. As it is a lively comic opera, the overture follows suit, with Benda providing a good dose of smart theatrics, yet without in any way exaggerating the music. While I still wouldn't say I liked his interpretation any better than those I mentioned above, when you consider that it comes with a full complement of more-obscure overtures, it might find a home with dedicated Rossini fans.

Likewise, The Turk in Italy is a comic affair, and Benda treats it so. If anything, he plays up the contrasts even more in this one than he did in The Barber, making it another delight, frolicsome and energetic.

And so it goes: eight selections, two of them familiar and six of them less so. For example, the Sinfonia in E flat Major dates from Rossini's student days, but he reused it several times over in other overtures. It's actually quite charming in its original version, and Benda appears to make the most of it.

The other items include Riccardo e Zoraide, Torvaldo e Dorliska, Armida, Le Comte Ory, and Bianca e Falliero. Of them, Armida pleased me the most with its steady march rhythms, which Benda emphasizes slowly and dramatically before the action starts later in the piece.

The Prague Sinfonia Orchestra, a smallish group in their performances here, judging by the booklet picture of them, sound both rich and crisp in their presentation. They seem an ideal ensemble for the likes of Rossini and his music.

Producer Katerina Chobotava and engineer Michael Rast recorded the music at Produckeni dum Vzlet and Kulturni Dum Barikadniku, Prague in 2011 and 2012. The sound is very clean, with little overhang or veiling, yet there is a small degree of hall resonance, too. The miking is fairly close, revealing a modest degree of inner detail and reproducing a healthy dynamic range and impact. Bass and treble extension are pretty good as well, making this another deserving sonic entry in Benda's Rossini series.

So, is Benda's Rossini complete set worth the price of four discs? I'd say yes, at least for the listener wanting more than the standard fare. Marriner's set fits on three discs but isn't quite as thorough as Benda's, which includes darn near every overture and introduction Rossini wrote. What's more, even though some other conductors may be more colorful, more dynamic, or more refined in the material, Benda provides thoughtful, unobjectionable performances. Then add in the sturdy, modern sound, and, yeah, I'd say it's a worthy set.


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

Apr 13, 2014

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

The Bad Plus. Sony Masterworks 88843 02405 2.

It's not uncommon anymore to hear Stravinsky's Rite of Spring played on any number of solo instruments and combinations thereof. Among the best recent applications of the theory was the solo piano transcription by Jon Kimura Parker. With the current disc it's a jazz arrangement from the trio The Bad Plus (Reid Anderson, bass, electronics; Ethan Iverson, piano; David King, drums), an innovative jazz ensemble that's been entertaining audiences with their eccentric and eclectic brand of music for the better part of two decades. This time, they try their hand at the Rite with generally favorably results.

The Rite lends itself especially well to jazz interpretations. Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote it for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where the music immediately scandalized him and, in part, the country. To be fair, the ruckus it caused probably had as much to do with Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography as it did with the music. In any case, The Bad Plus's jazz rendering brings out many of the primitive strains in the piece as well as much of its hushed lyricism.

In the hands of The Bad Plus the music takes on a more surreal air than ever. Notes seem to shimmer and float eerily, especially during the opening "Introduction," and the percussion often gives one a hint of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. We're on slightly more-familiar ground with the second movement, "The Augurs of Spring," although here the piano work seems more fluid than an orchestra might sound. The electronic background effects lend a new and creative quality to the proceedings as well, making it all appear imaginatively different while still seeming quite familiar.

"Spring Rounds" exudes a kind of Bob James aura, if you're acquainted with his smooth jazz style, as well as a certain early Emerson, Lake and Palmer vibe. So, yes, you'll hear influences of other jazz, rock, and pop artists mixed into Stravinsky's score in The Bad Plus's performance. In other words, this is an album that might appeal to a broad spectrum of music listeners.

The fact that all three Bad Plus musicians know what they're doing and have a healthy respect for Stravinsky's material helps, too. Their arrangement doesn't cheapen the music but, if anything, helps further to illuminate it. Even the men's occasional inarticulate vocal expressions tend to heighten the musical experience. And did I mention it was downright fun?

Now, here is one thing, and it's not really a negative criticism: I didn't find the same degree of unrestrained savagery in the Second Part of the score ("The Sacrifice") that I have found in traditional orchestral interpretations from the likes of Bernstein, Solti, and Muti. Maybe there are just some things a full orchestra can do that three lone musicians can't; it's hard to discount the enormous force a big ensemble can produce. I dunno. Still, The Bad Plus offer their own unique contributions to the music, not the least of which is their effective creation of mood, mystery, and atmosphere. This is a Rite worth hearing.

The Bad Plus produced and arranged the album, and Pete Rende recorded it at Kaleidoscope sound Studios, June 2013. For their presentation, Ethan Iverson plays a Steinway D Piano, and David King uses Ellis drums, Zildjian cymbals, and Vic Firth sticks. The sonics are impressively dynamic, and for just three guys they sound like a much bigger group in a fairly enveloping acoustic field. The miking is somewhat close, so expect good detail, definition, transient response, and impact at the expense of some small lack of dimensionality and air.


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

Apr 10, 2014

Mozart: Serenade No. 3 in D Major (CD review)

Also, March; Rondo in C Major; Adagio in E Major; Rondo Concertante in B-flat Major; Divertimento in E-flat Major. Alexander Janiczek, director and violin; Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Records Echo BKD 287.

The more I hear from Linn Records, the more I like. It's especially welcome, then, that they are reissuing some of their best older material, although the material isn't all that old, recorded about seven or eight years ago. This album of one serenade and several shorter works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) shows off the skills of Maestro Alexander Janiczek, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the Linn recording team.

The major thread that ties the album together is that it's all music Mozart wrote during his early years living at his parents' home in Salzburg. In 1781 he moved to Vienna where he wrote his more mature and often more lucrative works. These earlier pieces Mozart wrote mainly as background music for dinners, parties, celebrations, and the like, which seems a shame at the time but works out pretty well for us today.

The main selection on the program is Mozart's Serenade No. 3 in D Major, one of half a dozen serenades he wrote for full orchestra, along with several more serenades for winds, quartet, and the like. No. 3, which the composer wrote in 1773 while still in his teens, is probably the first serenade he wrote, and like many of the others, he wrote it for a celebratory occasion, in this case end-of-the-year celebrations for the University, where the orchestra would play it twice to an audience of students and professors. They would pair each presentation with a March, in this case K. 189, played en route to the venues.

Anyway, the Serenade No. 3 comprises seven movements, starting with an Allegro assai, then an Andante, Allegro, Menuetto & Trio, Andante grazioso, another Menuetto & Trio, and ending with an Adagio, Allegro assai. Pretty much a varied roster of fast and slow movements. The Serenade No. 3 is, as I said, a youthful work, and Maestro Janiczek finds that youthful appeal in it. He presents each movement with an engaging enthusiasm, yet he never resorts to ultrafast tempos or unusual phrasing to maintain our attention. He simply keeps the allegros moving at a healthy but not breathless pace and the andantes moderately slow and steady, as they should be.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are a joy to hear, playing with a delightful, graceful élan. And Janiczek takes the solo violin parts himself, imparting to them the same intense yet seemingly effortless energy he puts into his conducting. They make for an enjoyable combination.

The same ebullient charm that Janicezk and company show in the Serenade they exhibit in the accompanying shorter works. The little Rondo in C Major, K. 373 is particularly noteworthy in its execution. Janicezk keeps the music elegant and refined yet brilliantly energetic, too.

While none of the selections may be "great" music or even great Mozart, it's a total pleasure in its own right, lightweight or not. The performances are a must for any Mozart fan, and the recording a joy for the audiophile.

Producer Philip Hobbs and engineer Calum Malcolm recorded the music at Greyfair's Kirk, Edinburgh, UK in June 2006. The sound is both robust and natural. In other words, it appears just distant enough to allow for hall reflections to play a part in the realism of the occasion yet not so far away that it obscures or clouds detail. The sound is, in fact, wonderfully alive and transparent, with excellent body and definition. Highs shimmer and glow, the midrange exhibits commendable clarity, and the lows are more than adequate for the music. Orchestral depth, instrument transient response, and overall dynamics sound equally impressive. It's exemplary sound and nothing less than we might expect from a company that has been making audiophile equipment for years.


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

Apr 9, 2014

Wagner: Orchestral Music (CD review)

Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG B0000985-02.

It's hard for any disc to go wrong when the conductor and orchestra are working with the music of German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), especially when the conductor and orchestra are among the best in the world. So it goes with this album of Wagner orchestral music from the late Maestro Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. The Overture to Tannhauser, the Prelude from Parsifal, a suite from Parsifal, and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde comprise the goods. The interpretive results vary from more than adequate to excellent.

Fact is, though, there is a good deal of competition out there for Wagner orchestral music, and it may take something more than merely "more than adequate" to persuade buyers to part with their hard-earned cash for yet another collection of stuff they probably already have. Admittedly, record companies don't record suites from Parsifal very often, so for that reason alone one might want the disc. But for me, the reason for purchase is the Tristan music. It's as lush and romantic as any interpretation I've heard, perfectly befitting the doomed love affair it describes. The Tannhauser Overture and Parsifal Prelude, however, seem a bit more perfunctory; as I say, still adequate but not great. Not in the category of a Karajan with the same orchestra and label, for instance, or a Klemperer on his splendid collection of Wagner music reissued by EMI (Warner) in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series, which I'd like to take this moment to recommend all over again.

Anyway, Abbado's way with Wagner is quite rhythmic and melodious. He tends to bring out all the sweetness in a composer who sometimes can seem only rather grandiose and imposing. Abbado tends to caress the lines a bit more than other conductors and coax more-relaxed yet still penetrating performances from the music. It means Wagner is still Wagner, but his music appears more approachable than ever.

In the early days of digital sound, DG's sonic efforts for people like Karajan seemed to me too hard and brittle, so over the years the company appeared to tone it down and make things more realistic and listenable. With this release they may have erred too much in the opposite direction. They recorded the two Preludes and the Liebestod on this recording live in the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, in 2002 and recorded the rest of the music in the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2000. In both cases, the sound is a little soft and laid-back, so much so that at times it obscures some of inner-midrange detail. For a comparison, I listened to the Klemperer recordings made thirty or more years earlier to hear a difference in clarity and realism. Not that Abbado and company sound bad; indeed, they are quite pleasing and easy on the ear, and the slightly softer, warmer focus may actually be a blessing in the Tristan und Isolde music, imparting to it a more dreamlike quality.

In any case, the Berlin Philharmonic is, as always, in splendid form, producing as rich and precise a presentation as any you're likely to hear; Maestro Abbado serves up a tasty heaping of Wagner's most romantic Romanticism, at his absolute best, as I say, in the lush textures of Tristan und Isolde; and DG's engineers serve up a mellow concoction of sounds. Personally, I would not recommend the disc as an absolute and only first choice in Wagner, but for the collector who has everything it's probably a must buy.


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

Apr 7, 2014

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4 (CD review)

Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist and director; Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Sony 8888 3785482. 

Leif Ove Andsnes is foremost a pianist of subtlety, grace, and refinement. You have to understand that going in. He's not a big, bravura showman out to wow an audience with his audacious finger work, so you won't find a lot of showy glamour in his playing. Right away this may turn away some potential listeners who prefer more energy and bounce in their recordings. I would say it's all a matter of taste. Certainly, some performers are more fun than others simply because they give audiences what the performers think a given audience wants. You want it big and loud? They give you big and loud. You want deep, penetrating introspection or shades of melancholy or open sentimentalism or overt Romanticism? They provide it. But with Andsnes you pretty much get delicacy and discrimination above all else. Not that his interpretations can't be exciting, just in a different way.

So it is with this second album in a series titled Beethoven's Journey, which begins with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, written around 1788 but not published in final form until 1795, with another finale written in 1801. Whatever, it's relatively early Beethoven (1770-1827), and he hadn't yet quite found his own voice. Therefore, it's still a somewhat Classical rather than Romantic piece. Beethoven seemed mainly interested in the music as a showcase for his own virtuosic piano playing. It's a playful work in typical three-movement concerto form, although there is a rather lengthy introduction before the piano's introduction.

Andsnes's approach is one of graceful lines and cultured elegance. It's virtuosic, to be sure, yet sweet and lyrical, too, the pianist slowing down just enough for one to appreciate every note. Andsnes doesn't pack the electric charge of some of his rivals, yet his playing is so tasteful it always commands one's attention. Oddly, he takes the slow middle movement a tad faster than one usually hears it. There's no harm done, and it does seem a little less dreamy and sentimental than it can sometimes sound. Certainly, there is not a whiff of that here, which may or may not please everyone. The concluding Molto Allegro is appropriately amusing in a Mozartian mold and never succumbs to freneticism. Andsnes keeps the lightheartedness under control while still making things highly entertaining, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which he also directs, plays wonderfully.

By the time the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 premiered in 1808 Beethoven had matured considerably as a composer and had established his own voice. It is more complex, more rhythmic, moodier, filled with more surprises. Here, Andsnes is always tasteful, from the suave simplicity of the work's introduction to its ultra-calm craftsmanship. Yet for all its Romanticism, the work never sounds entirely Romantic but adheres to its neoclassical roots with a admirable power and precision. In the slow movement Andsnes communicates a commendably weighty darkness, leading seamlessly into the more-boisterous finale, which Andsnes also takes with perhaps more seriousness than some other pianists. Nevertheless, Andsnes is careful to end the affair on a triumphant note, and all's well that ends well.

So, where does that leave us? Although Andsnes's more-relaxed style doesn't exactly make waves among the established Beethoven recordings from Kovacevich (Philips), Perahia (Sony), Ashkenazy (Decca), Brendel (Philips), Serkin (Telarc), Gilels (EMI), Kempff (DG), Schiff (Warner), and the like, he won't disappoint his fans. These may not be the most-electrifying performances on record, but they are satisfying in their own, more low-key manner.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at Saint-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London in November 2013. The sound is typical of what we've been getting from Sony in the past few years: very clean, very clear, moderately close-up, with a bit less depth, dimensionality, and room resonance than one might desire. It makes for a comfortable listening experience if not always an ultimately realistic one for audiences seeking a concert-hall sound.


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

Apr 6, 2014

Bruch: Scottish Fantasy (SACD review)

Also, Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D. Ning Feng, violin; Yang Yang, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Channel Classics CCS SA 34913.

It happened again. Even though I probably listen to more classical albums every week than most classical-music fans buy in a month, I can't keep up with all the new artists out there. Such is the case with violinist Ning Feng on this album of Bruch and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. As a matter of course, I did not recognize the young man's name. According to his biography, "Born in Chengdu, China, Ning Feng studied at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and London's Royal Academy of Music where he was the first student ever to be awarded 100% for his final recital. The recipient of prizes at the Hanover International, Queen Elisabeth and Yehudi Menuhin International violin competitions, Ning Feng was First Prize winner of the 2005 Michael Hill International Violin Competition (New Zealand), and in 2006 won first prize in the International Paganini Competition, following in the footsteps of violinists such as Kavakos, Kremer and Accardo." What's more, this is his fifth recording. Nor was I familiar with the conductor Yang Yang who accompanies Feng with the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin. So much for what I don't know. Now I do.

Anyway, the program begins with the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 by German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920). Bruch completed it in 1880 and dedicated it to the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. As I'm sure you know, the Fantasy is Bruch's survey of Scottish folk tunes, in this case over thirty minutes of them, loosely tied together in four movements.

The Fantasy starts off rather solemnly with an introduction marked "Grave," which is slow and somber, indeed, before giving way to the more familiar and frolicsome melodies that follow. Possibly the first thing one must comment on about this new recording is the extremely relaxed approach Feng and Yang take to both concertos. Every movement is slower than I can remember anyone taking them. OK, I probably have heard slower, but memory is not my best friend. In any case, the interpretations take some of the luster and excitement out of the music. Fortunately, however, the musicians replace any missing pieces with a heartfelt sweetness that is hard to resist. Bruch's Adagio, for instance, floats gently overheard, doing much favor and grace to the Scottish love song that inspired it. The Scherzo, despite Feng's gentle handling of it, has a charming flow that melds imperceptibly with the folk tune of the Andante that follows it. Yes, there is a greater degree of sentimentality to these things than one usually hears, but it's a delightful sentimentality no less. The finale is the most overtly "Scottish" of the Fantasy's music, and both Feng and Yang have a good time with it, although again at a reduced pace.

Feng plays the violin with a smooth, elegant touch, while the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin demonstrate a precise control and a sympathetic enthusiasm. While the results are not quite in the same league as Perlman and the London Symphony or Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony, in Feng and Yang's slightly more scaled-back way they are attractive in their own right.

As famous as the Bruch work is, it doesn't compare with the popularity of the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He wrote it in 1778, premiering it several years later because the person he originally wanted to perform its first public appearance, the virtuosic violinist Leopold Auer, deemed it unplayable. As he does with the Bruch, Feng approaches the Tchaikovsky piece in a lighter, more lyrical manner than most other major violinists. The work comes off sounding closer to a love sonnet than anything else, surely a valid reading of the score, if losing a little something in grandeur and vitality along the way. It is a remarkably soaring, beautifully poetic realization of music that other violinists have done to death in showier, gaudier performances, some of the visceral thrills replaced by a milder but hardly less likable temperament.

Channel Classics recorded the music at Teldex Studio Berlin in November 2012 using some pretty impressive equipment: B&K and Schoeps microphones, DSD Super Audio and Pyramix digital converters, Audio Lab and B&W speakers, van Medevoort and Classe amplifiers, a Rens Heijnis custom mixing board, and Van den Hul cables. Certainly, the sound is realistic in the extreme in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, with a prominent bass, a detailed midrange, and extended highs. But most impressive is its dimensionality--its breadth, depth, warmth, and air. The violin seems a tad close to me, but there's nothing wrong with emphasizing the soloist. There are no harsh edges here, either, no brightness or glassiness. It's all quite natural and appealing without ever sounding dull or soft.


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

Apr 3, 2014

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concerto Italiano Portrait. Rinaldo Allessandro, Concerto Italiano. Opus 111/Naive OP 30363 (2-disc set).

Sometimes you hear a piece of music a hundred times and you figure there is no other possible way to interpret it, and then along comes Concerto Italiano and makes you listen to it entirely differently. Such is the case with their 2002 recording of Vivaldi's perennial favorite The Four Seasons. Not that I like it better than so many other recordings, but it does make one sit up and take notice.

Is there a work in the classical catalogue more recorded than The Four Seasons? I doubt it. And it comes in all sizes, shapes, and flavors, from full, modern orchestras to small, period-instruments groups. Yet this recording from Rinaldo Allessandro and his band of a dozen or so players is nothing if not unique. Unfortunately, merely being different does not always translate to being listenable, at least not more than once, and while I found everything about the ensemble's performance new to me, I had little desire to go back and listen to it again. So, it is different and enjoyable the first time around, but for me, at least, it perhaps doesn't quite beg a repeat listening.

Concerto Italiano attack these four little tone poems with an enviable vigor. In fact, it's so vivacious, it's unlike anything I've heard before in these concertos. The Technicolor album cover may say it all. The tempos range from ultra slow, with pauses so long you'd think the players had nodded off to sleep, to racehorse speeds. The last time I heard tempos as fast as these was also from an Opus 111 recording, but it was with Europa Galante. Now, combine the brisk pace of a Europe Galante with the monumental breadth you'd expect from a Klemperer, and you get one wizard set of varied velocities. Add to the freshness of the rubato, ritardando, and ritenuto a hugely wide display of dynamics, occasionally enough to startle you out of your seat, and then some ornamentation that would do the Queen of Sheba proud, and you get a Four Seasons you're not likely to forget.

One can see Allessandro's point in trying to identify every one Vivaldi's chittering birds, galumphing horses, and drunken villagers; it does make for one colorful, often riveting reading. Nevertheless, in over-emphasizing Vivaldi's musical descriptions, Allessandro may have slightly overlooked the music itself. That did not, however, stop Gramophone magazine in 2003 from awarding it a "Record of the Year" award. Let me say again that it's a performance that is fun to sit through the first time but beyond which it may be a curiosity. It's all a matter of taste.

The second disc in the set presents a collection of bits and pieces from some of Concerto Italiano's previous recordings (1999-2001). Because people might find most of these works a little less well known, the orchestra seems to do better with them. Or maybe the group was just being more cautious in these earlier recordings. For instance, their Rossini Barber of Seville overture (OK, that one is hardly less well known), seems pretty conventional, even unremarkable, though extremely well played.

Opus 111 afford Concerto Italiano a generously open but perhaps too reverberant acoustic. The engineers made the dozen or so players appear to sound like a much larger group, given the room reflections they capture, which also tend to make the group sound a tad too forward. Regrettably, the acoustic environment, the Sala Academica del Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome, does little to augment the bass, leaving us with somewhat bright, thin, billowy sonics. Overall, I'd say this is a release that every Vivaldi fan should hear, although it would not be my first choice in the repertoire.


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

Apr 1, 2014

Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD325 (2-disc set)

Bigger record companies often rerelease some of their best older material, but they don't always remaster them, make them sound closer to their master tapes. That's where smaller, audiophile companies who specialize in remastering old favorites come in, companies like First Impression Music, Hi-Q, JVC, and the subject of the present review, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

The thing is, even the audiophile companies don't always choose the very best material to remaster. Sometimes it's because they don't have the material available to them, sometimes because they don't have the rights to the material, and sometimes because they just haven't run across the material so they don't know just how good it is. Then there are the gems, the absolute dyed-in-the-wool classic performances in genuine audiophile-quality sound. Such a case is this HDTT remastering of Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) the Ninth Symphony, a recording originally made in 1961 with Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It is an unquestionable classic in every way, interpretively and sonically.

First, why is the performance so good interpretatively? Consider the fact that it was Bruno Walter who premiered the work in Vienna in 1912, and that Walter was one of only a couple of conductors making it into the stereo age who knew and worked with Mahler (another was Otto Klemperer). Second, why is the recording so good? Consider that when Columbia Records made it, they had a pretty good team of players at their disposal in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble the record company assembled specifically for the purpose of making their recordings, many of the players coming from either the Los Angeles Philharmonic when recording on the West Coast (as was the case here, in Hollywood) or the New York Philharmonic. Then consider that listeners at the time didn't always get to hear how very good the recordings could sound because the record company didn't always provide the best sound on their LP's of the day. But HDTT in their transfer of the 4-track tape have rectified that situation by giving us something that must come awfully close to the sound of the original master tape.

However, I'll get to the actual sound of the recording in a minute. Before that, let's talk about the music and Maestro Walter's realization of it. You'll remember that Mahler became ever more obsessed with death in his later years, something that manifested itself in his final few symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde (1908), the Ninth Symphony (1909), and the unfinished Tenth. The fact that he had recently lost his daughter and that he learned he was dying of a chronic heart disease probably precipitated this preoccupation. Anyway, the composer was also reluctant to assign a number to his Ninth because of Beethoven's never getting past a ninth and Bruckner never completing a ninth. In any case, Mahler's Ninth is both melancholy and vigorous, yet it is ultimately liberating in that it offers by the end a profound vision of peace.

Mahler's Ninth is a beautiful accomplishment, one in which I have found joy over the years with several excellent recordings: Otto Klemperer's sublime and lofty account with the New Philharmonia (EMI); John Barbirolli's impassioned reading with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), which also has the advantage of fitting onto a single disc; Bernard Haitink's absolutely gorgeous rendering (Philips); and this recording with Walter. I mean no disrespect to other fine conductors of the work like Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Simon Rattle, Carlo Maria Giulini, Georg Solti, Benjamin Zander, Riccardo Chailly, and the like. I simply find greater pleasure in Klemperer, Barbirolli, Haitink, and Walter. And Walter, like Klemperer, enjoys the distinction of being possibly more authoritative than the others.

Mahler's opening movement is extremely lengthy, about half an hour, longer than most of Mozart's symphonies in their entirety. In it Mahler presents dual themes of calm hope on the one hand and extreme passion on the other. Sustaining the score's intensity and momentum (and the listener's interest) over such a period can't be easy, yet Walter is able to do so with steady, straightforward tempos and unexaggerated inflections. He makes the music all the more lucid and expressive with his understated approach. You won't find the same degree of impetuous emotion found in, say, Barbirolli's or Bernstein's accounts; what you'll find instead is a more intimate, more nuanced view of the score. It is quite refreshing.

Next we get one of Mahler's typically bizarre scherzos, this one in a waltz-like tempo, a landler, Mahler suggesting that he intended it to represent "a friendly leader fiddling his flock into the hereafter." He probably meant it to be ironic. Walter does not play up the movement's strange or unusual features but presents them as luminously as possible, giving us an honest picture of the proceedings. With Walter, it's an illuminating experience, the movement ending on a sweet and tranquil note.

The third movement is a Rondo-Burleske. It's sort of a continuation of the preceding movement's mood of mocking the pleasures of life. Still, it tends to turn more serious as it goes along. Walter handles it with a playful gusto.

Mahler ends the symphony on an appropriately gentle note in the final Adagio, possibly a note of resignation. Of the Ninth Symphony Mahler said "There is no more irony, no sarcasm, no resentment whatever; there is only the majesty of death." Apparently, the composer was resigned to his own eventuality. As was Walter in the Indian summer of his own life when he made this recording. The conclusion is filled with considerable longing yet gentle repose, as though the conductor himself was content with his fate and ready to accept it. It's a beautiful and highly moving performance.

Columbia originally made the recording on January 26, 1961 at American Legion Hall, Hollywood, California, and HDTT transferred it to the present disc from a Columbia 4-track tape. Compared to the ancient CD version I had on hand, the new HDTT transfer is clearer, less veiled, smoother, and less edgy. Depth and dynamics also appear better, giving the whole presentation a most-realistic presence. The stereo spread is extremely wide, bass is more than adequate, and highs sparkle. It's a really good recording, with plenty of bite, impact, air, and dimensionality. In short, a great, unaffected performance sounds better than ever.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.


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