May 29, 2014

Perez & Costello: Love Duets (CD review)

Ailyn Perez, soprano; Stephen Costello, tenor; Patrick Summers, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646334858.

First, a word about the principals: The Associated Press called soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello “America’s fastest-rising husband-and-wife opera stars,” and the New York Times praised them for their “palpable chemistry.” They were both honored as winners of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award (Costello in 2009 and Pérez in 2012), and on the present debut album for Warner Classics they perform a selection of love duets from opera and musical theater.

The program includes eleven selections: “Toi! Vous!...N’est-ce plus ma main” from Massenet’s Manon; “Suzel, buon di!” from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz; “Signor ne principe--E il sol dell’anima...Addio! speranze” from Verdi’s Rigoletto; “Caro elisier!...esulti pur la Barbara” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore; “Il se fait tard!” from Gounod’s Faust; “Un di felice” from Verdi’s La traviata; “O soave fanciulla” from Puccini’s La boheme; “One hand, one heart” from Bernstein’s West Side Story; “If I loved you” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel; “I’ll know” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls; concluding with “And this is my beloved” from Wright and Forrest’s Kismet. Maestro Patrick Summers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra ably support the duo.

Anyway, what could be more appropriate for two young stars in love, especially for their first album, than a collection of love duets? Of course, they’re both in fine voice; there’s not much question about that unless you’re a fervent opera fan and have an obsession for particular kinds of operatic voices. For most of us, they sound just fine, if perhaps not yet in the superstar class where a tenor and soprano can go virtually anywhere with their talents. Let’s say that with Perez and Costello, it’s close enough.

As usual with these things, the opening number sets the tone. Both singers display a tremendous vocal range as well as a wide emotional sweep. Obviously, these love duets require a fair amount of dramatic skill as well as vocal talent, and here Perez and Costello shine. Of course, like any subjective talents, their voice and dramatic skills remain open to interpretation. One listener might find them impressive, another satisfactory, and still another annoying. I didn't find any distracting mannerisms in their singing or acting skills, but I'm no expert in things operatic.

There is certainly nothing halfhearted about their presentations. They belt out the songs in splendid form, perhaps too intensely at times; but surely you can't fault their enthusiasm. The two opening numbers, for instance, by Massenet and Mascagni, seem almost extravagantly expressive. While the singers convey the big, dramatic moments effectively, they don't always provide a commensurate degree of lyricism in the softer passages. But, again, this is just how the songs struck me personally; other listeners will surely find the presentations both moving and exciting.

And so it goes through the classical operatic numbers. I particularly enjoyed the playfulness in their rendering of the first Verdi selection and the passion of the second Verdi item and the Puccini.

It was with the final tracks, the four Broadway selections, that I had any initial hesitation. I worried at first that Perez and Costello’s operatically trained voices might be too heavy for the lighter stage roles. They swept aside my concerns, however, offering up perfectly enjoyable versions of all four songs. Their voices are perhaps bigger than we might find on the popular stage and, thus, take a moment's getting used to, but once attuned to them, they easily win us over. OK, maybe the Guys and Dolls number requires a stretch to imagine, chiefly Costello as a colorful Damon Runyon character; but, hey, if Brando could almost pull it off in the movie version of the play, I guess you can get used to anybody. The closing Kismet selection is possibly the best of the Broadway items because it comes closest to grand opera, anyway.

Producer Stephen Johns and engineer Philip Burwell recorded the music in December 2013 at Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London. The sound is slightly aggressive; that is, the frequency balance favors the upper midrange, making some high notes a little shrill and glassy, occasionally even fierce. The voices are out front, as we might expect, the orchestral accompaniment a bit recessed and a tad soft. It sounds, in fact, a bit more like pop-music sound than it does classical, the latter usually a tad more natural. Still, given the nature of the album, that's probably not a bad thing; the sound will complement a lot of home playback systems and car radios and no doubt appeal to folks used to listening to popular music on TV and iPods. I don't mean to be too critical here, but for the ultimate in sonic realism, you might want to look elsewhere. This is just good, clean, in-your-face sound.


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

May 25, 2014

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (HDCD review)

Clifford Curzon, piano; George Szell, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD337.

Here is another absolute, genuine, certifiable, dyed-in-the-wool classic from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers). English pianist Sir Clifford Curzon made the recording with George Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra over half a century ago, and no one has yet to surpass it. Now remastered to near-audiophile standards, it’s hard to see how any new contender will equal it.

Curzon (1907-1982) made a ton of recordings in his lifetime, yet he left us with only a relative few. That’s largely because he was a notoriously fussy perfectionist when it came to what he wanted the public to hear and refused to allow record companies (mainly Decca, with whom he recorded almost exclusively) to release any number of his recordings he didn’t think were up to his standards. He just didn’t feel satisfied with them. Fortunately, the Brahms was among the few things to get through and remain in the catalogue.

As I’m sure you’re aware, Brahms wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858 while he was still a fairly young man. I continue to see the work as all craggy and monumental in scope, and Curzon’s potent interpretation (one of the first I remember hearing) is a chief reason for how I think of the Brahms today. The work also abounds in energy and vitality, perhaps the energy of youth, and here I think of Curzon as well, even if he was in his mid fifties when he recorded it.

Anyway, after a lengthy and properly regal orchestral introduction from Szell and the LSO to set the tone, Curzon enters with elegant power. While the First Piano Concerto may be a youthful work, Curzon does not overemphasize the fact with any excessive playfulness. Indeed, his is a mature, patrician account, frank and straightforward, and all the better for it. Yet it is also a kind of cozy account, especially in terms of the interplay between soloist and orchestra. Everyone sounds comfortably together, from the grandest gestures to the most intimate moments. Curzon glides through the first-movement Maestoso with the appropriate measure of majesty, yet with a delicate lyricism as well, and Szell seems perfectly attuned to the pianist's every mood and need.

In the second-movement Adagio Curzon again finds his range, although his pace is a tad more leisurely than other pianists of my experience. However, his step is never loose or slack, merely relaxed. The playing is quite lovely, the movement said to be an elegiac tribute to Brahms’s late mentor, Robert Schumann. Then, Curzon and company go out on a agreeably jubilant note in the finale, a spirited peasant dance with variations that sparkles with good cheer.

The crack Decca production team of producer John Culshaw and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the concerto at Kingsway Hall, London, in May 1962. HDTT transferred it from a 4-track in 2014. The orchestral support sounds big and bold, with plenty of dynamic range, impact, warmth, and clarity. In their own remastering Decca had already minimized much of the hard glassiness of their previous CD, and here HDTT does them one better. The HDTT sound is quite smooth for the most part, with a good degree of naturalness. Still, the recording itself is somewhat flat and one-dimensional, but that's apparently the way Decca recorded it. The piano sounds realistically well balanced with the orchestra, out front but not over prominently so. It sounds about the way a piano would appear if you were sitting at a moderate distance at a live concert. In short, the HDTT remastering and transfer are excellent and make a good thing better.

For further information on HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at


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

May 22, 2014

A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 2 (CD review)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14, 19, 20, and 21. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1466.

British pianist James Brawn (b. 1971) has only recently begun a recording career with MSR Classics, and at the time I reviewed his album James Brawn in Recital a month or so before coming to this one, I'm afraid I did not recognize his name. However, judging by the critical praise he received for his prior albums and my reaction to his recital album, he appears to be off to an auspicious start. 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 second of his Beethoven recordings makes one understand his appeal. As I said of him after hearing the recital disc, he is a consummate artist.

Mr. Brawn made the album reviewed here, A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 2, in 2012 as a part of a series of Beethoven sonata discs I hope he will continue recording. The reviewed album contains three of Beethoven's most-popular sonatas, including three of the popular named pieces: the "Pathetique," the "Moonlight," and the "Waldstein," along with two shorter sonatas, Nos. 19 and 20. It makes a good introduction to Brawn's nuanced style of playing, and it should entertain anyone interested in Beethoven, no matter how many other recordings of these well-worn classics one already has.

The program begins with the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathetique," written in 1798, a relatively early work composed when Beethoven was only twenty-seven. The composer's publisher actually nicknamed the sonata "Grande sonate pathétique" (an appellation that apparently Beethoven liked) because the sonata impressed the publisher with its mellow, tragic qualities.

Brawn opens the sonata as Beethoven directs, gravely, but with a sweet, nuanced care. He then moves into the Allegro section with all the "brio" or vivacity required, so he's got both the lyrical and bravura qualities down pat. His intensity is evident in every note, taking care to modulate his tone as the score demands. Still, Brawn is doing more than just following the notes and score here; he is imposing a personality on the music. He is creating, in fact, an interpretation, one that in this case he has carefully planned around the composer's wishes, so while it is clearly Brawn's reading, it remains Beethoven's music. The second-movement Andante cantabile contains the sonata's most-famous melody, and again Brawn nails it perfectly, combining nobility, melancholy, longing, passion, and drama in balanced order. Then Brawn closes the piece with a playful Rondo, in which he matches the intensity of the opening movement with a demonstration of pianistic virtuosity that is quite dazzling. The result is a brilliant rendering of an old warhorse.

Next up Mr. Brawn gives us what is probably Beethoven's most-famous and best-loved sonata, No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 "Moonlight," completed in 1801. The first edition of the score bears the heading "Sonata quasi una fantasia," or "sonata almost in the manner of a fantasy." The "Moonlight" business derives from the comments of a critic of the day who compared the mood of the first movement to that of "moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne." The name stuck.

The "Moonlight" begins with that lovely tune we all know so well, and Brawn's handling of it is magical. It's just as dreamy as anyone's, without resorting to an ultraslow, sentimental pace. It simply paints the picture Beethoven seems to have had in mind: a kind of mysterious, desolate loneliness, tinged with a faint silvery glow. Beautiful, done with genuine feeling for the mood and the music. The Allegretto & Trio momentarily lightens things up before the distress of the final movement. Brawn's subtle and effective transitions take us from one emotion to the next with a seamless, effortless polish, all the while maintaining the urgency and poignancy of the music.

The third and fourth sonatas on the program are Nos. 19 in G minor, Op. 40, No. 1 and No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2 "Leichte" ("Light"), brief, two-movement pieces. Although published in 1805, Beethoven probably wrote them a decade earlier. In any case, they are understandably simpler than the other sonatas, and in the few instances I've heard them performed before, the pianist always seemed to take them rather superficially. But not Brawn, who makes each item a fascinating little listening experience.

The final work on the program is the Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 "Waldstein," from 1804. It got its name because Beethoven dedicated it to a close friend and patron, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein. Or you can call it "L'Aurora" (It., "The Dawn") for the tone of the third movement, which brings to mind the image of daybreak. It is a big, grand sonata that takes the album to a big, grand conclusion.

Brawn tells us in a booklet note that he sees the "Waldstein" as "a kind of rebirth" for the performer and the listener, a work "filled with physical energy and love of life." Certainly, the pianist puts this philosophy to the test from the very outset of the work as he offers a successive outpouring of notes that transform in purpose from nervous agitation to sheer pleasure. Then, in the central Introduction and concluding Rondo Brawn further impresses us with his complete command of tonal changes, flexible tempos, shifts of contrast, shadings of expression, and, of course, sheer virtuosity.

I have no idea if Mr. Brawn intends to continue his "Beethoven Odyssey" through the composer's complete thirty-odd piano sonatas or wrap it up with his first three such albums. Still, I'm sure anyone who has heard his creative, highly personal, yet truthful Beethoven realizations so far can only hope for more.

Mr. Brawn recorded the sonatas in April and December of 2012 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom. Producer Jeremy Hayes, engineer Ben Connellan, piano technician Ulrich Gerhartz, and tuner Graham Cooke attended to the details. The technicians miked the piano at a moderately close distance, all the better to pick up the instrument's detail, definition, and dynamics. Yet the acoustic environment allows enough warm, ambient bloom for the piano to sound natural and realistic. It's quite ideal, actually.


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

May 21, 2014

Dvorak: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Piano Quintet. Sarah Chang, violin; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57521 2 3.

Sarah Chang's recording of Dvorak's Violin Concerto with Sir Colin Davis and the LSO has been around for more than a decade now and remains one of the best versions currently before the public. It may not be the absolute best ever (my own favorite is still Perlman's mid-Seventies release with Daniel Barenboim, also with the LSO), but it's close. Different but close.

If there can be such a thing as a feminine approach to a work, that's the difference between this 2001 recording and Perlman's. The Dvorak Violin Concerto is a composition of startling contrasts, yet Chang and Perlman approach them differently. Dvorak meant the first movement to sound somewhat melancholy, almost bittersweet, yet Chang makes it more lyrical, more lilting, more ethereal, while Perlman, still mercurial, seems more granite solid. In the second, slow movement, Dvorak turns his piece into a ballad, interrupted only occasionally by turbulent outbursts, and again it's in these outbursts that Perlman appears slightly more in command. The final movement finds Dvorak returning to his roots in Czech folk music, and here it's a toss-up between Chang and Perlman as to which artist is more idiomatic and which conductor, Sir Colin Davis or Daniel Barenboim, is more supportive and sprightly. Both sets of musicians are certainly very fine, warm and powerful throughout, Ms. Chang dancing through the finale with sensitivity, exuberance, and strength.

The coupling on Chang's disc is Dvorak's Piano Quintet, although to be fair the violin seems always at center stage. It's a long chamber work that's all over the map thematically from exquisitely beautiful poetry to raging storms and everything in between. The group Ms. Chang performs with--Leif Ove Andsnes, piano; Alexander Kerr, violin; Wolfgang Christ, viola; and Georg Faust, cello--sound like they have been playing together forever, their unity is so complete. The Quintet is one of Dvorak's most-popular works and deservedly so, especially when you hear this group perform it. It may not be the best recorded account available, that is primarily a matter of taste, but like the Concerto it is surely among the best.

As far as concerns the sound, EMI (now Warner Classics) recorded the music in June 2001 at  Watford Colosseum, London and gave both pieces on the disc a fairly decent image balance, the violin in the Concerto never too dominant as it is in EMI's earlier recording with Perlman where the soloist is well forward. However, the Chang recording emphasizes the high end more than the older Perlman disc did, making the sound of the Chang version appear thinner, lighter, and brighter. Fortunately, it's not entirely objectionable and, in fact, may even serve to more greatly emphasize the lighter, gentler approach I mentioned earlier that Ms. Chang brings to the Concerto. In all, it's a lovely enough recording.


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

May 19, 2014

Chopin: Piano Concertos (SACD review)

Ingrid Fliter, piano; Jun Markl, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Records CKD 455.

I've loved Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 for as long as I can remember. While it may not be the greatest music in the world, it is among my favorites. As Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was primarily a pianist and composer for the piano, most of what he wrote was for solo piano. Maybe that's why the orchestral accompaniment he provided for his two piano concertos can sometimes seem almost like an afterthought. But that's of no consequence with melodies so lovely and memorable as his.

Anyway, I hope you'll forgive my bias for liking practically every recording of Chopin's First Piano Concerto that comes along, and when we get the Second Concerto thrown in for good measure as in this disc from pianist Ingrid Fliter, it's an almost instant winner with me. Not that Ms. Fliter displaces my two absolute favorites, however: Maurizio Pollini (EMI) and Martha Argerich (EMI), or the several recordings in my collection from Arthur Rubinstein (RCA), Thomas Vasary (DG), and Yundi Li (DG). Nevertheless, Ms. Fliter is in the running.

Chopin wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1830, within a year following his Piano Concerto No. 2, but he published No. 1 first. So if No. 1 seems the more mature of the two, well, by a few months it actually is. Chopin described the second movement of No. 1 as "reviving in one's soul beautiful memories." In Chopin's case, he composed the piece when he was about nineteen or so and smitten at the time with a beautiful young student, Constantia Gladkowska, at the Warsaw Conservatory. Although he barely talked to her and she soon married somebody else, he may have had her in mind when he wrote his piano concertos, as well as a few other works.

Of course, the piano parts dominate both piano concertos, the better to showcase Chopin's own virtuosity on the instrument. Yet with the Piano Concerto No. 1, the piano doesn't even enter the picture until after a fairly lengthy orchestral introduction. Maybe the composer intended the prolonged preamble to make the piano's entrance all the more grand. It certainly works that way. Anyhow, while Fliter, Markl, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra open the piece big, it doesn't sound quite as dramatic as some other conductors and orchestras do, probably because of the reduced size of the chamber ensemble. Be that as it may, the introduction is impressive enough in its way and sets an intimate tone for the main theme to follow. Then Ms. Fliter takes over and the rest is hers.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ms. Fliter now divides her time between Europe and the U.S. In the past decade or so, she has become something of a specialist in Chopin, having already released two well-received Chopin albums before this one, and winning the Silver Medal in 2000 at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

Ms. Fliter takes the first movement of No. 1 at a slightly more leisurely pace than most of the pianists I mentioned earlier, bringing out all the beauty and Romanticism of the main theme. It is a sensitive, radiant, rhapsodic interpretation, one that will, I think, bear up under repeated listening, for I'm sure most people will want to return to it again and again.

In the second, slow movement, Ms. Fliter is as delicately lyrical as any pianist I've heard. If we see the operas of Mozart as an inspiration for Chopin, we clearly hear the voice of those operas in Ms. Fliter's playing of the Romanze. Then, both pianist and orchestra acquit themselves eloquently in the spirited finale, although again Ms. Fliter tends to favor unhurried tempos. Still, the expressive pacing leads to much reward in terms of the music's nuances and color. It's quite a lovely realization of a score that never grows old.

In the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Ms. Fliter brings a comparable degree of refined energy to the proceedings as she did to No. 1. Although she doesn't have as many memorable melodies to play, she engages us, nonetheless, with the compelling sweetness and sheer virtuosity of her performance. The orchestra may not have quite as much to do in the Second Concerto as it did in the First, but the Scottish Chamber Orchestra proves a good, lively supporting member of the presentation, never overpowering the soloist nor behaving too subservient to her needs. So, it's a well-played and well-balanced rendering of the music.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the concertos for hybrid two-channel and multichannel SACD at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK in June 2013. In the stereo format to which I listened the orchestra sounds clean and well defined, yet with enough hall resonance to provide a realistic setting. There is also a good degree of orchestral depth to add to the illusion. Moderately wide dynamics and an adequate frequency range fill out of the equation. The piano is a bit forward for my taste, but it's certainly clear and well articulated, with no undue harshness or brightness. Overall, the Linn team have put together a rich, natural-sounding recording, one that falls comfortably on the ear.


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

May 18, 2014

Tüür: Symphony No. 7 "Pietas" (CD review)

Also, Piano Concerto. Laura Mikkola, piano; NDR Choir, Hans Hagen, choirmaster; Paavo Jarvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. ECM New Series 2341 481 0675.

The German ECM label has been around since 1969 producing mainly jazz titles but also folk and contemporary classical. The folks at ECM have steadfastly denied any such characterizing, however, and prefer to think of themselves as providing music that knows no boundaries. More power to them. This 2014 release of music by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (b. 1959) is a good example of their work (and, apparently, Tüür's). The music is clearly classical yet might find a wide audience appeal among jazz and even pop fans.

Although Tüür studied flute and percussion at the Tallinn Music School in the Seventies and composition at the Tallinn Academy of Music, by the early Eighties he was leading the popular rock group In Spe before turning to classical composition. All of it paid off: His country awarded him the Cultural Prize of Estonia in 1991 and 1996, and he has since composed a wide variety of classical pieces including orchestral, concerto, chamber, vocal, organ, piano, and choral works; with even a film score thrown in for good measure.

The program here begins with Tüür's Concerto for piano and orchestra, written in 2006. As with much modern classical music, there seems to be a conscious desire in the concerto's three unmarked movements to eschew most forms of melody or anything like a recognizable tune. I suppose that would sound too "pop" and appeal to too many people. In any case, what we have is mostly a series of sonic effects, with the piano and orchestra in constant communication, a continuous back-and-forth between the soloist and supporting ensemble. The pianist, Laura Mikkola, has a beautiful rapport with the orchestra, and their intertwining of material remains fascinating, even when the music gets a bit too rambunctious for its own good.

Anyway, some of the music sounds eerie, some of it sounds brilliant, and all of it is engaging. The movements flow without intermission into one another, so as listeners we sort of drift along with it, an occasional bend in the road or shift in the tide taking us to a few surprising places. It's actually a fun journey, exceptionally well played; it's just not one I'd care to take too often.

Tüür wrote his Symphony No. 7 "Pietas" for orchestra and mixed chorus in 2009. Tüür dedicated the Seventh Symphony to the Dalai Lama, according to the booklet note "a choral symphony like no other, a work where the orchestra has its own purposes, among which that of framing and supporting the voices is by no means paramount." Then there's talk of the young monk screaming when the other monks took him to the sanctuary. It is there that the symphony begins, a fascinating collection of tone impressions in four movements.

The high percussion instruments play a big part in the proceedings, and they create a highly atmospheric work that is at once mysterious and glowing, with a greater emphasis on melody than we found in the Piano Concerto. Indeed, this stress on various melodies running in and out of the music might almost tempt one to think of the symphony as Romantic, if one didn't fear offending the composer with the use of such a description. In any case, the conductor, chorus (mostly hushed and heavenly), and orchestra seem attuned to the work and pull it off attractively. I enjoyed how the music floated, shifted, and hovered, yet conveyed a feeling of togetherness. The symphony's subtitle is "Pietas," a term suggesting a caring for others, a holiness, making the symphony a kind of prayer and thus returning us to the Dalai Lama theme. Very nice.

In addition to the disc and jewel case, ECM provide a light cardboard slipcover. I've never been too sure of the value of a slipcover for CD's, DVD's, or Blu-ray's--they always seem an extra thing to have to remove before getting to the disc--but they do spruce up the product and make it more appealing to a prospective buyer.

Producers Eckhard Glauche (Piano Concerto) and Hans Bernhard Batzing (Symphony No. 7) together with engineer Thomas Eschler recorded the music in June 2009 at Alte Oper and June 2010 at hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt, Germany. The piano in the concerto is a little more forward than might be the case live, but it's hardly an issue and certainly sounds clean and clear. The orchestra throughout remains nicely spacious and airy, the definition and detailing solid. There are even instances of almost uncannily realistic depth and dimensionality that add to the realism. Highs are especially natural and extended; lows are adequate to the occasion; and midrange transparency appears nicely judged.


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

May 15, 2014

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (HDCD review)

Georg Solti, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD346.

For years now I've been undecided about which of Maestro Georg Solti's recordings of Mahler's First Symphony I liked best, the earlier, analogue one with the London Symphony Orchestra presented here or the later digital release with the Chicago Symphony. I had always preferred the earlier performance but liked the later rendition's sound. Now, thanks to HDTT's remastering of the LSO account I can have my cake and eat it, too. Their refurbishing of the older recording sends it to the top of the list of available Mahler Firsts.

Anyway, you probably know that Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888 and premiered it in 1889, calling it at first a symphonic poem rather than a symphony and temporarily, at least, giving it the nickname "Titan." It wasn't long, however, before he revised it to the four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" designation. The work's popularity soared in the late Fifties, the beginning of the stereo age, possibly because the composer scored the First for a very large orchestra, and with its soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts it makes a spectacular listening experience and an ideal way to show off one's stereo system. Plus, the First is one of Mahler's briefest symphonies, making it an ideal length for folks like me with short attention spans.

In the Symphony No. 1 Mahler said he was trying to describe a protagonist facing life, with a progression beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's youthful hero in the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement Scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It may represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. The movement has long been one of the Mahler's most controversial, with audiences still debating just what the composer was up to. Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, Mahler was a spiritual optimist and wanted Man to triumph in the end. In the final twenty minutes or so, Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing.

Not only does this earlier of Solti's Mahler First recordings sound more lively and energetic than his later digital effort, it really is quicker. Solti takes all four movements at a brisker, more enlivened pace than he did twenty years later. It shows in every note we hear, the electric vitality and spirit. Yet the conductor never overdoes anything, either. This may be a high-powered performance, but it is not an exaggerated one.

Solti's way with the opening lines, the awakening of spring, is really quite enchanting, probably the most impressionistic, atmospheric reading of this sequence on disc. Then he builds to some very exciting crescendoes and climaxes, with ravishing playing from the LSO. When the conductor does slow down, it's with warmth and grace, often sweet and moving. Yet it's probably the big moments one remembers most, like the closing of the first movement and the opening of the finale. Here, you'll find Solti in full swing, aiming for the center-field seats, while still maintaining the shape and structure of the music, never distorting it for sensational effect.

HDTT remastered the present disc from a London 4-track tape originally recorded in February 1964 at Kingsway Hall, London, by Decca producer John Culshaw and engineer James Lock. Compared to the old Decca disc, the new HDTT remastering is quieter, cleaner, more transparent, and more dynamic. Not only is the definition crisper and more solid, there is a greater sense of orchestral air and depth than I've heard from the recording before. Additionally, there's a greater smoothness involved, a more natural sound than ever. And if that weren't enough, it even sounds better to me now than Solti's 1984 digital account: more open and more realistically distanced, with clearer highs (if very occasionally a little aggressive), stronger impact, quicker transient response, and more detail. As I say, it goes to the top of my list of favorite Mahler First recordings, sonically and musically.

For further information on HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at


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

May 14, 2014

Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Piano Trio, Op. 11. The Eroica Trio; Prague Chamber Orchestra. EMI 7243-5-62655-2.

How do you make beautiful music even more beautiful? You could start by having three exceptionally beautiful and talented people play it. But beyond the obvious physical appeal of the Eroica Trio's membership--pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Adela Pena, and cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio--there is playing of care, fluidity, and sophistication. Performing together since they were children and formalizing their group well over a decade ago, these three artists have perfected their style in a graceful give-and-take of musicianship. Their work on the Triple Concerto is a delight.

The first thing one notices about this performance of Beethoven's Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, Op. 56, however, is not necessarily the easygoing refinement of the Eroica Trio's presentation, but the fact that the Prague Chamber Orchestra accompanies them. This means a lighter, airier interpretation than one normally hears from a full orchestra. Indeed, because listening to more grandiose productions like that of the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Karajan with stars David Oistrackh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Sviatoslav Richter (EMI or Hi-Q) have spoiled me, it took a few minutes for my mind and ears to adjust to the smaller proportions of the Eroica Trio's presentation. But adjust I did, in time to appreciate the quiet elegance these ladies exude throughout their reading.

And since the Triple Concerto provides for a supple interplay of soloists and orchestra, as well as sporadically highlighting each solo instrument individually, the piece allows the Eroica Trio to display all their liveliness and charm together as well as separately. While, admittedly, they can't match the all-star Karajan team, they bring an affectionate warmth of their own to the piece. I wish the Prague Chamber Orchestra had shown as much enthusiasm for the work as the principal players did, though.

Accompanying the big Triple Concerto on the disc we find Beethoven's smaller, earlier, and more playful Piano Trio, Op.11, which is also a captivating little work of surprisingly complementary design. The three Eroica Trio musicians play it tastefully, gracefully, and with at least a modest élan.

EMI's sound in this 2003 release (now Warner Classics' sound, I suppose) tends to emphasize the three soloists quite a lot more than it does the orchestra, but no doubt that's as it should be, so it's not a big complaint. The sonics are delicate and smooth, perhaps lacking that final degree of transparency, air, dynamics, and dimensionality that might put the recording in the audiophile class, but compensating for it by the affability of its performances. The disc makes a good companion to, but surely not a replacement for, the classic EMI Karajan all-star recording I mentioned above.


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

May 12, 2014

Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

Nicholas Angelich, piano; Paavo Jarvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Erato 0825646322954 (2-disc set).

When Erato first released the two Brahms Piano Concertos with pianist Nicholas Angelich, Maestro Paavo Jarvi, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra separately a few years ago, they escaped my attention. They did not, however, escape the attention of a lot of listeners who apparently loved them. Now that Erato has repackaged them together in a two-disc set, and I've had a chance to hear them, I can understand the public's approval. While Angelich doesn't quite displace my favorite sets from Kovacevich (Philips) and Giles (DG), this newer contender seems reasonably well recorded and comes at an agreeable price. It's a set to consider.

German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858 while he was still a young man in his twenties. I've always seen the work as all craggy and monumental in scope, full of the boundless energy of youth. After a long and imposing orchestral introduction from Jarvi and the Franfurt RSO that does the concerto justice, Angelich enters relatively gently but enthusiastically. Here, we find in Angelich's playing a tempered combination of melancholy, drama, and Romantic lyricism. To his credit, the pianist seems more concerned with communicating the music's sweetness and light than its sometimes melodramatic passions.

Then Angelich tackles the Adagio, an elegiac tribute to Brahms's late mentor, Robert Schumann, with a touch less sentimentally than some other artists. He rightly emphasizes its spiritual qualities but without quite the gush we occasionally get. It's a straightforward, unadorned reading, all the more effective for it.

The finale comes as almost a surprise, a kind of rustic peasant dance that swirls and whirls its way through a series of variations. Angelich handles with it with commendable vitality, the orchestra always providing a sympathetically lively accompaniment.

The Brahms Second Piano Concerto (1881) appeals to me more than the First Concerto, maybe because it seems more mature, more lyrical, and more tuneful, and maybe because I'm just a sentimental Romanticist and find the Second Concerto more heartfelt. In any case, Brahms wrote it many years after the First Concerto, and it's unusual in its four-movement structure. Apparently, Brahms included an extra movement, a scherzo, because he thought the opening movement sounded too plain and simple.

In the Second Concerto Angelich seems more inclined to a full-throated voice than he did in No. 1, yet he maintains much poetry in the process. It's a delicate but successful balance of expression, the emotions rising and falling in smooth succession. Moreover, the dialogue between piano and orchestra seems even better integrated, with Angelich and Jarvi in complete harmony.

Angelich and company go on to communicate a buoyant, rhythmic, delicately powerful thrust in the scherzo. Then the piano takes an appropriately secondary role in the sweetly tuneful Andante (where the cello practically steals the show). Finally, Angelich ends the work with a quietly prancing, lightly dancing demeanor that is every bit as charming as the music demands.

If there is any minor drawback to the set, it's that the folks at Erato chose to offer nothing but the two concertos on the two discs, omitting the other stuff that filled out the previous single-disc editions. Still, the price is affordable (with some on-line sites selling it absurdly low), so one shouldn't complain.

Producers Udo Wurstendorfer and Etienne Collard and engineer Thomas Eschler made the recordings in 2007 (Concerto No. 1) and 2009 (Concerto No. 2) at Sendesaal, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt, Germany. As we might expect from recordings made in the same location, the different producers and two years separation notwithstanding, the sound is pretty much alike in both concertos with perhaps a very small advantage in clarity going to the second outing. In any case, the sound in both concertos is complementary to the performances. This is not to say it's entirely transparent, however; it's simply big and voluminous, the louder passages hampered very slightly by hall resonance. Nevertheless, the sound is natural enough and undoubtedly faithful to the recording environment. Most of the time, the hall acoustics provide a flattering ambient bloom, and, as I say, only in the more-emphatic sections do the sonics lose a little definition. Otherwise, the recording sounds warm, spacious, wide ranging, if a tad soft.


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

May 11, 2014

Rachmaninoff: Music for Two Pianos (CD review)

Suites for Two Pianos; Symphonic Dances. Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov Piano Duo. LP Classics 1019.

Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov are award-winning, Juilliard-trained concert pianists who formed a partnership in 2010 as the Lavrova Primakov Piano Duo. Moreover, their friendship and musical collaboration also led them to create their own record company, LP Classics, of which the present Rachmaninov recording is, I believe, their third release. As the duo explain it, LP Classics "is committed to unearthing lost historical gems, presenting never-before released recordings, and enriching the discographies of emerging stars of the new generation." I assumed when I heard their previous album that the "LP" stood for Lavrova-Primakov and not simply as in the old days "long-playing." Maybe, I surmised, we could also think of "LP" as "lovely performances," and certainly such a description continues to fit their new Rachmaninov release.

When I reviewed the duo's last album, among the things I praised about them was the thoughtful perception and insightful response that made their interaction so good; their pianistic skills and imposing display of musical gymnastics; their impeccable showmanship; and their total accord with one another's playing. The same applies here to these three selections from Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), the duo sounding quite spectacular at times.

The first item on the program is the Suite No. 1 (Fantasie-Tableaux for Two Pianos), Op. 5, a composition for two pianos that Rachmaninov wrote in 1893 while still a young man. To my knowledge, he never arranged it for orchestra, and it gets only occasional recordings. In the best Romantic tradition of his day, the composer based each of the four movements on parts of poems: the Barcarolle: Allegretto in G minor on a work by Mikhail Lermontov; La nuit... L'amour: Adagio sostenuto in D major ("The night...the love") on a poem by Lord Byron; Les Larmes: Largo di molto, in G minor ("The Tears") on a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev; and Pâques: Allegro maestoso in G minor ("Easter") on a poem by Aleksey Khomyakov.

Starting with the Barcarolle, or "boatman's song," Lavrova and Primakov demonstrate their sensitivity, the notes flowing in smooth, luxuriant harmony. You can almost hear the ripple of the water beneath the gondolier's oar. The duo's treatment of the second-movement love poem is warm, lyrical, and lovely, pure Rachmaninov. The Largo is as delicate as one can imagine, light as a feather on the breeze. Then the duo go out with a finale of imposing proportions, the great bells of the church tower peeling grandly.

Next, we find the Suite No. 2 for two pianos, Op. 17, which Rachmaninov wrote in 1901, just after he recovered from the shock and disappointment of the initial performance of his First Symphony. In the Second Suite he did not try to illustrate poems but wrote it in a customary four-movement arrangement: Introduction: Alla marcia in C major; Valse: Presto in G major; Romance: Andantino in A flat major; and Tarantelle: Presto in C minor. In the Second Suite we get a more-mature, more adventurous work from the composer, and Lavrova and Primakov explore it with an appropriate impetuosity. The results are quite lively in the opening two movements, equally charming and graceful in the third segment, and most exciting in the concluding Tarantelle.

The last item and for me the highlight of the album is Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, which he wrote for two pianos in 1940, at the same time arranging it in its more-popular orchestral version. In this regard, it may remind one of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, also written for piano but more famous in its orchestral arrangement. The composer premiered the piano rendition at a Hollywood party in which Vladimir Horowitz and he played it together. Don't you wish you were at that party?

Anyway, maybe because I'm so familiar with the orchestral arrangement, I wasn't sure what to expect from this first-time listening to the two-piano version. But Lavrova and Primakov bring to it such a lusty zeal, it's hard to resist. No, two pianos don't have the sheer power of a full symphony orchestra, yet as the piece goes on the duo manage to make one almost forget that there even is an orchestral version. Whether it's a quiet, lingering passage or a full-throated attack, Lavrova and Primakov handle it with the utmost refinement, respect, enthusiasm, virtuosity, and bravura. I found it thoroughly delightful and engrossing and couldn't help thinking as I listened that Rachmaninov and Horowitz would find it likewise.

If I have any criticism of the product at all, it isn't about the music or the performances. Instead, it's about the omission of an accompanying booklet of notes. OK, it's probably a cost-saving measure, I understand. Nevertheless, if that's the case, how to explain the three-paneled, glossy laminated, Digipak-type container the disc comes in? While the packaging certainly looks handsome, it's surely not cheap. Ah, well, I quibble.

Producer and engineer Alexey Gorokholinsky recorded the album in Stratton, Vermont, October 2013. The sound has a sweet, airy quality about it, clear but mildly resonant, too, providing a complementary sonic experience. Given that there are two pianos involved, you'd expect to worry about an exaggerated stage width, but not so. The two pianos appear at a moderate distance, centered between the speakers quite realistically. Transient response, dynamics, frequency range, and, as I say, acoustic ambience are exemplary, the sound never bright or forward or veiled but just right for easy, natural listening.


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

May 8, 2014

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, John Adams: Violin Concerto. Chad Hoopes, violin; Kristjan Jarvi, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naive V5368.

Quick: What do nineteenth-century German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and contemporary American minimalist composer John Adams (b. 1947) have in common? Correct: They both write music. Naturally, the booklet notes try to explain why young American violinist Chad Hoopes chose to pair two disparate violin concertos by these two dissimilar composers in his debut album. I didn't find the arguments very convincing, however, the most persuasive one being that the two concertos are among the performer's favorites. Now, that's fair enough.

Mr. Hoopes bears a slight if superficial resemblance to Justin Bieber, which can't hurt album sales. Moreover, from what I hear on this disc, he has about an 800:1 talent-ratio advantage over Mr. Bieber, which definitely can't hurt album sales. Mr. Hoopes won first prize in the Young Artists Division of the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition and has since appeared with a number of ensembles throughout the world. The present album is, as I say, his first foray into the recording field.

Anyhow, the program begins with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 64 (more commonly known simply as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto). The composer premiered it in 1845, and it would be his last big orchestral work. Fortunately, he went out in style, the concerto being among the most popular in the violin repertoire.

Donald Rosenberg in an accompanying essay notes the Mendelssohn concerto's "impetuous phrases with which the violin opens." It's probably this quality of impetuosity that best describes Hoopes's playing; while other violinists have probably provided more emotion, more sympathy, more sentimentality, more overt Romanticism in the concerto, Hoopes brings an appealing tone of controlled youthful enthusiasm to it. Not that the tempos are overly brisk; Hoopes just moves them forward with a good, strong thrust, bringing out more of the work's rhythmic characteristics than some other violinists do.

Hoopes takes the lovely melodies of Mendelssohn's second-movement Andante more quickly than usual, yet he does them little or no harm, again emphasizing the movement's dramatic momentum over its more-delicate lyric phrasing. And, again, this is not a bad approach, just a different one. The movement still retains much of its beauty and grace.

Mendelssohn's finale is one of high, good cheer, which Hoopes negotiates more conventionally than he does the preceding movements. His violin dances, jumps, spins, and pirouettes elegantly, although with maybe not quite the ultimate zeal I've heard from a handful of other performers. As I say, it's only here that Hoopes tends to sound a little more traditional than in other parts of the concerto

John Adams premiered his Violin Concerto in 1994, and while it doesn't approach anything like the popularity of the Mendelssohn (because, as you know, for most modern composers tunefulness appears forbidden), the music is, nevertheless, innovative and fun in its own way. The Adams concerto is definitely a modern piece, and one has to accept that fact at the outset. Even the movement notations are unique: [], Chaconne: 'Body Through Which the Dream Flows,' and Toccare (Italian, "to touch"). Well, right there you know you're in for something out of the ordinary. The violin enters almost immediately, and from that point Hoopes continues an upward spiral of continuous notes. The music becomes more insistent as it carries on in an ever-forward circular pattern of rhythms, Hoopes making the most of its sometimes eerie transformations. Even though you won't find the melodic lines of a Mendelssohn here, you'll find Hoopes is able to keep your attention with his well-animated playing.

As with the Mendelssohn, the first movement of the Adams piece glides readily into the second, darker, evocative slow movement, and Hoopes negotiates the transition effortlessly, supported by excellent, well-modulated accompaniment from Maestro Kristjan Jarvi and the MDR Leipzig RSO. Then, in the finale, we get a vigorous, quick-paced dance, with hints of Adams's Shaker Loops throughout. OK, so maybe there are more similarities between the Adams and Mendelssohn pieces than at first meet the eye (or ear), at least structurally. Hoopes ends the Adams work with another of his bursts of impetuous energy, making in all an enjoyable ride.

Naive recording producer Alfredo Lasheras Hakobian and balance engineer Evelyn Ruhlemann recorded the album at the MDR-Studio Leipzig in November 2013. With the soloist front and center (but not too much so), the sound is fairly natural, with a decent dynamic range, good frequency extensions in treble and bass, and a modest midrange transparency. It's pretty much all most listeners could ask for in this music, including a moderate depth to the supporting ensemble, a mild resonance, a sweet warmth, and a realistically nuanced violin tone.


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

May 7, 2014

Schubert: String Quartet in D minor "Death and the Maiden" (CD review)

Also, Dvorak: Quartet in F Major "American," both scored for string orchestra. Charles Rosekrans, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Telarc CD-80610.

I suspect that one's reaction to this disc will depend largely upon one's familiarity with the original string quartet versions of the two pieces included. But the string orchestra transcriptions presented here are certainly accessible and designed for mass public appeal; indeed, as a number of years have passed since Telarc released this disc, you may have already heard the music to distraction on your favorite classical radio station. Certainly, the late opera, symphony, and ballet conductor Charles Rosekrans (1934-2009) and the estimable Royal Philharmonic Orchestra do a splendid job performing it.

Franz Schubert wrote his String Quartet in D minor "Death and the Maiden" in 1824, partly inspired by the words of a poem by Matthias Claudius about Death tempting a young woman with his soothing words. The work's combination of energy and melancholy have attracted audiences ever since. What we have on this disc, though, is something a little less formidable in an arrangement by Gustav Mahler for quite a few more strings. The result seems more romanticized, more idyllic, softer, and lusher than Schubert's original. The bigger arrangement obviously gives up a good deal of intimacy for the larger, cushier sound of a string orchestra, and I must confess I found it lost some of its impact and allure in the translation.

However, the Quartet in F Major, "American," written by Antonin Dvorak in 1893, rather benefits from its bigger arrangement, taking on a grander sweep that embellishes the music through its larger forces. Unfortunately, the Telarc folks do not tell us anywhere I could find on the packaging or in the booklet the number of strings involved or who did the new scoring. I presume the numbers involved are about the same as in the Schubert, and perhaps Telarc meant for us to assume the arrangement was by the conductor, Charles Rosekrans; I don't know. Still, it's odd. I mean, the notes tell us what microphones, amplifier, and speakers Telarc used to produce the disc but little about the arrangement of the music itself. In any case, I enjoyed the Dvorak slightly more than the Schubert, perhaps because over the years I've gotten more used to the sound of Dvorak in bigger arrangements to begin with.

And speaking of sonics, the recording (which Telarc released in 2003) does not sound quite as well defined as I would have expected from Telarc, given that they were working with a small string orchestra and all. Probably as a result of the natural hall ambience, there is a bit of haze or veil overhanging the orchestral picture, so we don't get as much inner detailed as Telarc often reproduce on their discs. In any case, this soft veiling may actually enhance the expressive, warmhearted characteristics of the music. It doesn't distract much and doesn't really harm the music.


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

May 5, 2014

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" (CD review)

Also: Schumann: Fantasy in C Major. Yundi, piano; Daniel Harding, Berlin Philharmonic. DG-Mercury Classics 481 0710.

If you've been following classical music these last few years, you're no doubt familiar with the Chinese pianist Yundi. He was a musical prodigy who in 2000 became the youngest person ever to win the International Frederic Chopin Competition. After making several recordings with DG, EuroArts, Maxell, and EMI (now Warner Classics), he's back with DG (in conjunction with Mercury Classics) for this recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 and Schumann's Fantasy in C Major, with no less than the Berlin Philharmonic and Maestro Daniel Harding in accompaniment.

Li Yundi, Yundi Li, or simply Yundi as he currently wants folks to call him, is enormously popular throughout the world, thanks mainly to his enormous technical prowess on the piano. It's hard to argue with his virtuosity after hearing only a few notes of the Beethoven. His pianistic abilities are enough to leave listeners openmouthed in awe. The question one must ask about Yundi, however, is how much heart, thought, and soul he can communicate through his prodigious talent. That question, I'm afraid, is still open, no matter how much a person may love his technique. A while back I said of his Chopin Nocturnes recording that even though I liked it quite a lot, I wasn't always as moved by the performances as I was those of a few other, more-established pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, and Maurizio Pollini. I would say the same thing of his Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1, again liking it quite a bit. Regardless, interpretation is largely a matter of taste, and everyone's taste differs. Certainly, Yundi's present reading of the "Emperor" Concerto is as exciting and entertaining as they come.

Anyway, Beethoven composed his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, "Emperor," in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It was the composer's final piano concerto, and it would go on to become one of his most-popular pieces of music. The work's "Emperor" nickname, though, was not of Beethoven's doing. In fact, he probably would not have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor Napoleon. It was most likely Beethoven's publisher who gave the piece the "Emperor" appellation, or possibly it was the fact that Beethoven first presented the music in Vienna at a celebration of the Austrian Emperor's birthday.

No matter who's playing the "Emperor," the pianist must provide a big, bold opening Allegro, and here Yundi does so in spades, the whole performance full of energy, enthusiasm, and, above all, that virtuosity I mentioned above. Maestro Harding maintains some brisk tempos, yet they are never terribly fast or rushed, so both the piano playing and the orchestral accompaniment seem well within the Romantic tradition.

In the opening, where the piano enters immediately, Yundi is dazzling, his finger work a marvel to hear. This is a spectacular realization of the score, with the Berlin Philharmonic providing a sparkling accompaniment. Yet for all the ear-catching dazzle, it still left me wondering if Serkin, Kovacevich, Ashkenazy, Kempff, and others don't provide a more penetrating interpretation. While Yundi surely maintains a riveting forward momentum, he hardly slows down enough to give us much more than that, and when he does relax, it seems almost perfunctory, as though the score simply obligated him to do so, without much real feeling in it. Exciting, as I say, yes, and for many listeners that's no doubt more than enough. To which I say, fair enough; it is quite magnificent piano playing.

Although Yundi takes the Adagio a bit more briskly than any of the pianists I mentioned above, he nevertheless keeps the mood glowingly serene and effects a smooth melodic flow throughout. Again, however, the movement failed to touch me as much as other renditions have, the melancholy of the music somewhat eluding the pianist. Then Yundi makes a seamless transition into the final Rondo-Allegro, which may seem a little too calculated for some ears but worked fine for me. He ends things on an appropriately rollicking, heroic note.

German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote his Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17 for solo piano in 1836, revising it for publication in 1839. The first movement is melodious and impassioned, the second movement grand and majestic, and the finale leisurely and contemplative. Beethoven was apparently the inspiration for Schumann when he wrote the Fantasy, along with Schumann's longing for his beloved Clara. Yundi says of the work, "I wanted to create a sonority which echoes what Schumann called 'drawing a veil' over the music. What lies beneath the veil could be palpable, but one can never really tell what it is or what it looks like. This is the sense of the Fantasy--a grey area where reality and Romanticism co-exist. I hope the listener will be able to hear this complexity in my recording and pick up on this feeling of not being able to put one's finger on something."

I found Yundi's realization of Schumann more to my liking than his Beethoven, with not just the music but even the piano sounding more resonant and glowing. That I continue to wish he would communicate a greater emotional range in his playing is probably attributable to my own sentimentality rather than any reflection on Yundi's style. His Fantasy has a sweet, calming, uplifting effect on one's spirit, and one can hardly complain about that.

Producers Christoph Franke (Beethoven) and Helmut Burk (Schumann) made the recording with engineer Rainer Maillard at Teldex Studios, Berlin in January and February 2014, and Deutsche Grammophon and Mercury Classics are jointly producing and distributing the disc. The sound in the Concerto is supremely clear and clean, every note reproduced in minute detail. It's also just a tad bright and forward in the upper midrange, with only modest orchestral depth, but these are minor concerns. The Berlin Philharmonic produce a rich, lush, glorious sound, and it's good to hear them miked at a moderate distance in a studio, without an audience present. The piano is dominant, of course, yet it isn't so far forward that it spoils the illusion of realism. The piano in the Fantasy sounds, as I say, warmer and more resonant, a touch less hard and bright.


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

May 4, 2014

Mozart: Requiem (SACD review)

Reconstruction of first performance. John Butt, Dunedin Consort. Linn Records CKD 449.

Given that Mozart never finished his final composition, the Requiem in D minor, K. 626, we'll never know with absolute certainty how it might have come out. In the meantime, everybody and his second-uncle Bob have produced their own version of what it might have been like had Mozart completed it. Of course, the earliest and most-popular of the completions is the one by Mozart's own assistant, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, carried out at Mozart's death, and that's the one we hear on the present disc from Maestro John Butt and his period-instruments performers, the Dunedin Consort (named after a Scottish castle). However, Butt and his colleagues attempt to go one further than most other conductors and orchestras by not only offering a historically informed performance but one they claim comes as close as possible to the first public performance of the Sussmayr score, performed at a benefit concert for Mozart's widow, Constanze, in January 1793, just over a year after the composer's death.

Whether a reconstruction of the music for that early event will appeal to everyone is another story. There are a lot of people who simply resist all period performances from all period bands, and there will be yet more people who will undoubtedly resist this one in particular, given that it utilizes far more-reduced choral and orchestral forces than used in most other presentations. The result is a leaner, tauter, and obviously less-grand Requiem than one usually hears. This isn't Giulini or Davis we're talking about. Not even Marriner, Herreweghe, Hogwood, or Gardiner. Be prepared.

Now, here's the thing: Despite the smaller forces, instead of the performance sounding more intimate, the miking is such that the group seems bigger than they probably really are, negating some of the intimacy that could have attended the event. This is mainly so in the bigger passages, though, and the purely orchestral and solo sections are fine.

What's more, despite Butt taking some speedy tempos on occasion and creating some heady contrasts, the entire performance still seems fairly conventional. Among the segments that stood out for me were the "Dies Irae" for its menacing spirit; the "Tuba Mirum," "Recordare," and "Lux Aeterna" for their sweet freshness; and the "Lacrimosa" for its earnest bearing. The rest of the reading sounds OK but not necessarily more compelling than anyone else's.

In addition to the Requiem the program contains Mozart's Misericordias Domini in D minor, K. 222, "Offertorium de tempore," recently identified by researcher David Black as one of the composer's final works and using basically the same forces as the Requiem. And we also get two reconstructions of music performed at Mozart's own Requiem Mass of December 10, 1791, five days after his death: the "Requiem Aeterna" and "Kyrie." I actually enjoyed them more than I did the Requiem itself.

Philip Hobbs produced and recorded this hybrid stereo-multichannel SACD for Linn Records in September 2013 at Greyfriar's Kirk, Edinburgh, UK. I listened in the SACD two-channel stereo mode and found the sound generally good, if not quite up to Linn's highest standards. It displays some very smooth, clear, natural orchestral sonics, with a modest sense of presence, air, and dimensionality in the instruments. The choir and soloists, however, tend to get a bit too bright for my taste and a little congested, too, in the loudest passages. The hall's inherent ambient bloom may have gotten in the way of the cleanest vocals, I don't know. In any case, it's not a huge concern and may even favor more reticent playback systems. The miking, as I said earlier, is also a tad close and the dynamics quite wide, making the smallish ensemble seem larger, though not necessarily more imposing, for it.


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

May 1, 2014

Verdi: Requiem (CD review)

Kristin Lewis, Violeta Urmana, Piotr Beczala, Ildar Abdrazakov; Philippe Jordan, Orchestre et Choeur de L'Opera National de Paris. Erato 50999 9341402 9.

Verdi's Requiem Mass surely ranks among the greatest of all sacred choral music, right up there with Bach's Mass in B minor, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, and Mozart's Requiem. You probably already own a favored recording of the work, but that doesn't stop record companies from releasing new interpretations every year, like this new one from Maestro Philippe Jordan, soloists Kristin Lewis, Violeta Urmana, Piotr Beczala, Ildar Abdrazakov, and the Paris National Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

A little background: Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) wrote his Messa da Requiem in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet and novelist that Verdi admired, the Requiem premiering at the San Marco church in Milan, May 22, 1874. The Requiem is, of course, a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass, scored for four soloists, a double choir, and orchestra.

For many years, since the late Sixties at least, my own favorite Verdi Requiem has been Carlo Maria Giulini's rendering with an all-star cast on EMI. Although Verdi specifically indicated that he didn't want his Requiem sung operatically--a condition, no doubt, meant to foil the critics of his time who didn't think he could produce anything worthwhile except opera--the Giulini recording is, in fact, a refined yet highly emotional, operatic experience. Likewise, John Eliot Gardiner's period-instruments account on Philips is on the dramatically operatic side, if sounding a bit more sedate than Giulini; nonetheless, I would guess that Gardiner brings us closer to the composer's intentions. And then there's Abbado on DG, a conductor who sees the work as just what it is, a Celebration Mass for the dead and as such fills it not only with the powerful Wrath of God but with gentle and comforting words of mercy and forgiveness, too.

Which in a rather roundabout way brings us to this new recording from Jordan. The conductor seems to want it all ways at once, never quite latching onto a coherent style or structure. The fact is, it's a very fast reading, making Jordan's recording one of the few to fit on a single disc. Indeed, at seventy-seven minutes it's probably the fastest Verdi Requiem I've ever heard. This may be great for listeners who would rather not get up and change a disc in mid performance, and it may have been great for the live audience who heard Jordan's playing it in concert during the recording, but for home listening it makes for a somewhat tiring, sometimes breathless affair.

In addition to Maestro Jordan's rather fast delivery is his tendency to play up, maybe even exaggerate, every dynamic contrast that comes his way. He can start at a whisper and the next moment knock you out of your seat. These quick tempos and wide dynamic fluctuations might make for an exciting performance, but it doesn't seem like a performance entirely in line with Verdi's goals.

In a booklet note Jordan says that performing the Requiem has enabled the Orchestra and Chorus of the Opera "to demonstrate  their understanding of, and feeling for, this overwhelming music." The key word here may be Jordan's belief that the music should be "overwhelming," and he wants to play it that way, making it more monumental than the triumphal march from Aida. Everything about the presentation seems a tad inflated, in the process making the music that much less dramatic, less spiritual, less operatic, and less inspiring than it could be otherwise.

On the other hand, there is no denying the impact of the phrasing, dynamic contrasts, and occasionally dizzying speeds. And there's no denying that the soloists, chorus, and orchestra aren't generally up to the challenge. Jordan's is an interpretation of variety, violent tensions, wild mood swings, but not a lot of contemplative soul searching except perhaps in the Lacrymosa for quartet and chorus and the Lux aeterna for soprano, tenor, and bass, which do come off pretty well.

Erato producer Arnaud Moral and balance engineer Michel Pierre recorded the music live in concert on June 10-11, 2013. There is a very wide dynamic range involved, which I usually wouldn't complain about, except that in this case it tends to be a little distracting from the beauty and solemnity of the music. Besides, when combined with some fairly close live miking, the voices get somewhat harsh and bright in louder passages. It adds a degree of ear fatigue a listener probably doesn't need. Otherwise, the audience members remain quiet enough that they are seldom obtrusive. Although the stereo spread is broadly spaced across the sound stage, depth suffers a bit. So, the sound is impactful, forward, and a little flat; it's clear, to be sure, but not particularly natural or lifelike. Thankfully, the engineers have edited out the final applause.


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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa