Jun 30, 2014

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Wieniawski: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Michael Rabin, violin; Sir Eugene Goossens and Sir Adrian Boult, conductors; Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI Japan TOCE-16323.

Good things continue to come around.

When the CD age dawned in the early Eighties, I had a long list of recordings I wanted to get on compact disc. Over the years the list shortened, and by just a few years ago it was down to only two items. Then, with my finding Michael Rabin's Paganini Violin Concerto on CD, I had completed the project.

Rabin recorded his remarkable performance of Paganini's First Violin Concerto for EMI way back in 1960 with Sir Eugene Goossens and the Philharmonia Orchestra. I didn't come to it until the late Sixties, however, by which time it had gone on to the budget label, Seraphim. The sound wasn't so hot, edgy and thin, and the vinyl was noisy. Later I managed to find it on an EMI Electrola German LP, which at least had quieter surfaces. But the recording's interpretation was the best I had ever heard, and the best I have yet to hear. In its opening movements Rabin's violin sings lyrically and melancholically and plaintively, and in the final movement it struts and dances, the cock o' the walk. Never have I heard such verve, such exceptional vibrancy and wit and energy as in Rabin's reading. Indeed, the only minor drawback for some listeners these days may be the recording's age, yet one listen and you forget it wasn't recorded yesterday.

But that's not all. I had never expected the sound to be much more than passable; it was the performance I cherished. Besides, the later recording by Itzhak Perlman, also on EMI, was sonically splendid enough if it were just sound I was after, and Hilary Hahn's newer realization on DG provides even smoother response. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to discover that when EMI finally did transfer Rabin's performance to CD in a big, expensive multi-disc set, it sounded magnificent. In fact, in many ways it surpasses Perlman's and Hahn's renditions for sound quality.

Rabin's violin appears perhaps a touch close and its tone just a tad forward, but it is marvelously clean, transparent, and alive; and the orchestral accompaniment, while a smidgeon recessed overall is, nevertheless, nicely spacious and transparent. Moreover, there is hardly a trace of background noise unless you turn up the volume to the threshold of pain. There is also a welcome depth of image, strong dynamics, fine midrange clarity, quick transient response, good treble extension, more than adequate bass, and a mild room resonance. It's also the tiniest bit bright, but everything else is working so well, you probably won't notice.

Here's the thing, though: Because of the expense and the difficulty in locating the big six-disc EMI set of Rabin's work, I found it hard to recommend it to people. But then I discovered that EMI France had issued the piece in a two-disc set, along with Paganini's 24 Caprices and Yuhudi Menuhin doing the Second Violin Concerto. That was a better deal, but it still wasn't what I remembered from my younger, LP days, the Paganini First coupled with Wieniawski's Second Violin Concerto. Until now, when I finally realized that EMI Japan had released this single CD of the original pairing from the 1960 LP.

The coupling on the disc is almost equally distinguished as the Paganini. Polish composer and violinist Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) premiered his Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22 in 1862, and it's been something of a staple of the violin repertoire ever since. It's never attained anything like the popularity of the Paganini, understand, but people like it pretty well in any case. It begins somewhat gloomily, turns rhapsodic and Romantic, and ends in a lively, Gypsy-like finale. Rabin applies the same exuberant spirit and clarity of line to the Wieniawski as he does in the Paganini and produces memorable results. The playing is active and lively, with wonderful control, the violin singing and weeping in remarkable accord.

Then, for extra measure the Japanese give us Wieniawski's First Violin Concerto with Rabin, but this one from 1957, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and released by EMI in monaural. If not quite so accomplished as the preceding stereo works, the First Concerto is worth hearing, and Rabin and Boult do it justice.

Finally, how does the sound of the EMI Japan disc compare to EMI's multi-disc CD transfer and EMI France's transfer of the Paganini First? About the same, actually. In side-by-side comparisons, the Japanese disc seems a bit more open, the high end more extended, and the impact more solid. Still, it was so close I might have been momentarily delusional. Let's just say the sound in all three versions is excellent, so choice among them might go to whichever coupling one prefers and how much one wants to spend on the product, this single Japanese disc of the original pairing being my personal favorite and the least expensive of the lot. It's a terrific deal.

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


Jun 29, 2014

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" (CD review)

Also, Egmont Overture. Sir Colin Davis, Staatskapelle Dresden. United Classics T2CD2013027.

Sir Colin Davis (1827-2013) had already made several fine recordings of Beethoven symphonies before recording the complete cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden for Philips in 1995. Of the set, this recording of the Third Symphony got some of the best notices, yet it didn't appear to remain in the catalogue for long. I can only surmise that this situation might have come about in part because Philips was at the time thinking about throwing in the towel and in another part because Davis's reading sounds somewhat deliberate, and perhaps some listeners even considered it old-fashioned. Nevertheless, it's quite a good interpretation in its own right and worth a listen, so it's no surprise that United Classics would want to reissue it.

Anyway, the Symphony No. 3 "Eroica," Op. 55 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) premiered in 1805, ushering in something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure. It was so new, in fact, that Beethoven's orchestration and arrangement still prompt discussion among critics today about what it all means. My personal favorite recordings of the symphony include those by Otto Klemperer (EMI), Sir John Barbirolli (Dutton Lab), Karl Bohm (DG), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Philippe Herreweghe (PentaTone), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Paavo Jarvi (Sony), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), and even a cheerfully eccentric one from Hermann Scherchen (HDTT). While Davis's treatment doesn't strike me as being as colorful or as distinctively characterized as these, it is remarkably elegant and graceful, and it certainly should be an interpretation the dedicated Beethoven fan might investigate.

Don't expect a hypertense or superfast interpretation from Davis along the lines of a Norrington, Zinman, or Scherchen. Davis is closer to the readings of older maestros like Bohm, Klemperer, and Jochum. Yet Davis's rendering comes with its own charms, not the least of which is the way he so affectionately brings out the rhythms and harmonies of the first movement Allegro con brio. There is a genuine vigor and vivacity here, without his getting all hectic and crazy on us. Moreover, there is plenty of heroism and nobility involved, a sense that one is listening to pure, refined elegance rather than just hurried notes or manufactured excitement. I still wouldn't say Davis's rendition of things is among my absolute favorites (it hasn't the granite grandeur of a Klemperer, for instance), but it does come off pretty well.

It is in the second-movement funeral march, however, that conductors have to prove their worth in the Third. Here, Davis is very solemn, indeed, and trying to keep our attention for over a quarter of an hour proves a strain even on his skills. Still, he maintains a goodly and varied pace, creates a calm and quiet intensity, and manages at least not to put one to sleep.

While Davis's way with the Scherzo is not quite as lively as some I've heard, he does pull it into the sphere of the earlier movements, so it doesn't come as a complete shock to the system. Under Davis, the movement has a kind of regal vitality that is quite in line with the symphony as a whole.

Then, we get a concluding movement of expansive weight, bringing this first of Beethoven's truly great symphonies to an impressive close. Again, expect no delirious exercise in thrills and excitement, but a regal and triumphant summing up of the piece, with the finishing Presto working up a notable head of steam.

As a coupling, Davis offers the overture to Egmont. Although I never felt the same enthusiasm listening to Davis's interpretation that I feel with Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic, Davis nevertheless provides a telling compromise of tragedy and heroics, with perhaps the balance favoring the former.

Throughout the music, the Dresden State Orchestra plays wonderfully, reminding me once again why I consider it one of the finest orchestras in the world. The deep, rich, flawless sonority of the ensemble finds a match among few others in my book, maybe the Concertgebouw, Gewandhaus, and Berlin orchestras. They are always a pleasure to hear.

Philips originally recorded the disc in 1995, releasing it as a single disc and in a complete set of Beethoven symphonies. United Classics re-released the album in 2014 (and Newton Classics re-released the entire cycle several years earlier). What you'll get sonically is one of the finest-sounding Beethoven Thirds around. The midrange is remarkably clean, with a mildly pleasant ambient bloom. Dynamics are on a par with the best--very strong, very quick. Depth of field is not exceptional but still realistic. Stereo spread is wide. Bass and treble extend out well in both directions. In sum, the whole affair is remarkably natural and lifelike, and most enjoyable.


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

Jun 26, 2014

Roberto Moronn Perez: Andres Segovia Archive (CD review)

French composers. Roberto Moronn Perez, guitar. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-709.

This is the second album in a series of Reference Recordings Fresh! albums devoted to music dedicated to or commissioned by the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia, this time the program presenting the music of mostly French composers performed by guitarist Roberto Moronn Perez. The disc contains selections from seven French composers and one Belgian, each having written music in a Spanish style. Edizione Musicale Bèrben originally published the music as the Segovia Archive Series, and Reference Recordings offer them on disc as a part of their subsidiary Fresh! label.

According to RR's notes, the "genesis for this unique project is a collection of pieces recovered in May 2001 at Segovia's home. Spanish-born Perez researched these newly recovered works and found some pieces that had never been recorded, and those that had were handicapped by poor visibility in the marketplace and limited distribution. This realization sparked the thought that here was an opportunity: a series of recordings organized around the nationalities of the composers in the Segovia Archive."

Anyway, just as other French composers have evoked the spirit of Spain--Ravel, for instance, Chabrier, Massenet--so do the composers represented here. More important, Perez does each man and his work fair justice. He plays with flair but also with nuance and subtlety. His guitar opens up each work and expands it seemingly beyond the limits of a single instrument. Although you won't find any (or if you are a dedicated classical guitar fan, many) familiar pieces here, if you are like me you will find each work entertaining, touching, or enlivening as the case may be.

Composer Raymond Petit (1893-1976) and his little Sicilienne opens the program. Its original title was Andantino, but a reviewer at the time of its première described it as a gentle, melancholic Sicilienne. So, of course, that's the way Perez plays it, hardly the usual blockbuster that often opens a show but certainly affecting. This one is slow, sensuous, and sweet.

Then, there is Henri Martelli (1895-1980) and his Quatre Pieces. These four selections appear more rhythmically varied than the first item, with rich harmonies nicely exploited by Perez. The second of the four movements takes extreme dexterity to pull off, and Perez is up to the job, giving us a fine display of his guitar mastery.

Pierre de Breville (1861-1949) and his Fantaisie is next. It derives its title from its changeable character, which surprises one at every turn. It's odd that this piece gets so little play; it's quite appealing, especially in Perez's capable hands.

Henri Collet ((1885-1951) and Briviesca follows. This is, for me, the first selection on the disc that sounds distinctly Spanish, with echoes of a Castilian landscape. Perez serves up the melodies with a warm, sensitive passion, making it one of the loveliest pieces on the disc.

After that is a three-movement Suite by Raymond Moulaert ((1875-1962). Moulaert is the only non French-born composer on the disc, Moulaert born, raised, and educated in Belgium. Close enough, I guess. His Suite is altogether the longest work on the program, yet thanks to Perez's insightful performance it seems rather short. Maybe it just went by quickly because I was enjoying it so much. This is also, interestingly enough, the most intense piece on the program.

Another three-movement work comes next, this one called Cuadros (Scenes d'Espagne) by Raoul Laparra ((1876-1943). The second and third of these "pictures" are the most colorful and enjoyable, with tunes directly aimed at pleasing a mass audience. Perez seems to be having fun with them, even if the music appears more derivative than that of Laparra's fellows on album.

The program closes with two brief selections: Spiritual by Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936) and Segovia by Ida Presti (1924-1967). The Ferroud number seemed more overtly "modern" to me than the rest of the music on the disc, which seemed more traditional and Romantic by comparison. In a booklet note, Perez says he isn't sure Ferroud's piece measured up to Segovia's taste, and that might explain why guitarists today don't play it much. Ms. Presti, on the other hand, was a guitarist herself and a favorite of Segovia. Perez imbues her musical portrait of the master guitarist with much intricate personality. Overall, it's another gentle, nuanced piece of music played with rich, strong feeling and sensitive shading, making a lovely ending to the album.

Audio engineer John Taylor produced, recorded, and edited the music at Holy Trinity Church, Weston, Hertfordshire, UK in 2013, with Grammy award-winning engineer Keith O. Johnson doing the final mastering. The guitar is fairly close yet never in-the-face close; just close enough to provide ample detail and focus. The sound comes across as well defined, with a moderately quick transient response on the plucked strings, yet warm and natural, with a realistic decay time thanks to the ambient bloom of the venue.


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

Jun 25, 2014

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (CD review)

Also, Romeo and Juliet; Capriccio Italien; Dance of the Tumblers; Marche Slave. Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.555923.

This disc was something of a puzzlement to me when I first received it some ten years ago. Why in the world, I thought when I first saw it, would Naxos believe anyone needed another 1812 Overture? Likewise with the attendant material on the program. I mean, even at a low Naxos price I can't imagine too many people willing to invest in something of which they probably already have multiple copies. Of course, there may be young people who have just bought their first audio system, who don't own Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and who want something to show off their new gear. But in that case, why chose this particular 1812 or this particular disc?

The album begins inauspiciously with Maestro Theodore Kuchar's somewhat prosaic, almost lackadaisical rendition of the Capriccio Italien. Part of the fault here may lay in the Naxos sound, which for the first three-quarters of the piece sounds as though someone had turned off the bass. Then the highs start to come forward and recede as though the engineer were fiddling needlessly with his mixing board. Only by the last notes does the piece come to life and does the bass finally make an appearance. Odd. In any case, to my ears Kuchar's interpretation seems far too underpowered to be of much value to the seasoned listener.

Theodore Kuchar
In the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture Kuchar and his ensemble come off a little better, although the music doesn't evoke the all-out sensuality of some of the finest competitors in the field. Then, the "Dance of the Tumblers" from The Snow Maiden appears more loud and boisterous than anything else, but that's probably as much the composer's fault, so I can't blame Kuchar. After that, the March Slave makes an appearance, but it, too, comes in sound so soft and round it seems almost lifeless.

Finally, the 1812 closes the show, and, lo and behold, it's passably good. Maybe the audio engineers were saving the best for last. The sound here appears closer and more robust than on the preceding pieces; the bass, while still not very deep, at least makes a small impression; the dynamics increase slightly; the pacing picks up, also slightly; and the music ends decently enough with real cannon shots. Unfortunately, the cannons are not particularly forceful, and the accompanying bells are so muffled they sound more like crowd noise than musical instruments, but that's neither here nor there.

Overall, one can do better than this Naxos release, even at budget price.


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

Jun 23, 2014

Two x Four: Jennifer Koh & Jaime Laredo (CD review)

Music by Bach, Clyne, Glass, and Ludwig. Jennifer Koh and Jaime Laredo, violins; Vinay Parameswaran, Curtis 20/21 Ensemble. Cedille Records CDR 90000 146.

Some things new; some things old. The new would be violinist Jennifer Koh and double violin concertos by Anna Clyne and David Ludwig. The old (or, at least, older) would be violinist Jaime Laredo and double concertos by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass. The combination works wonderfully together.

The folks at classical WCLV Cleveland write of the disc: "Three great conservatories (two in Northeast Ohio) are represented on this new disc: Jennifer Koh is an Oberlin alum, Jaime Laredo teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music and at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute. This project has been in the works since 2010, when Jennifer Koh approached composers Anna Clyne and David Ludwig about creating new concertante works for 2 violins, inspired by one of Ms. Koh's favorite works, the Bach Double Concerto which leads off the program. Anna Clyne responded with Prince of Clouds, written specifically for Jennifer Koh and her mentor at Curtis, Jaime Laredo. David Ludwig's Seasons Lost is an artist's response to the reality of global climate change. The fourth composer in "Two x Four" is Philip Glass whose Echorus was written in 1995 for Yehudi Menuhin."

The solo performers are two consummate artists, so you would expect nothing from them but the very best. So they start out with the best, the inspiration for the other works, the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The violinists shine in their individual right, of course, but their sympathetic communication in Bach (and, indeed, in all the pieces presented here) is evident in every passage. Their partnership is energetic, felicitous, and expressive, admirably and pleasurably so. I especially enjoyed their nuanced playing of the central Largo, which is most impressive in its emotional concentration and its lyric, dance-like qualities.

Next up is Prince of Clouds for two violins and string orchestra by British-born composer Anna Clyne (b. 1980). It's a relatively short piece here recorded for the first time. As in the Bach, the two violinists share complementary roles, intertwining their contributions with grace and finesse. Ms. Clyne says that she imagined the piece as a "dialogue between soloists and ensemble." Certainly, Ms. Koh and Mr. Laredo maintain that musical dialogue in eloquent fashion and through several highly variable mood changes.

After that is Echorus by American composer Philip Glass (b. 1937). Although Glass would rather that people not call him a minimalist, he remains one of the first composers listeners think of when they hear the word "minimalist." Glass currently prefers that people think of him as a classicist in the mold of Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. Fair enough. Furthermore, Glass says his music often features a "repetitive structure," and we hear that in Echorus, the echoes of each refrain. Koh and Laredo shape and caress the music carefully, sweetly, gingerly, creating a performance that encapsulates all that is good about Cage's work. The gently pulsating rhythms of the variations are hauntingly beautiful and produce a lasting impression for the listener.

The final work on the program is Seasons Lost for two violins and string orchestra by American classical composer David Ludwig (1974). Ludwig descends from a roster of famous musicians, including his uncle, pianist Peter Serkin, his grandfather, pianist Rudolf Serkin, and his great-grandfather, violinist Adolf Busch. Yes, he also knows his business; he was born to it. Ludwig notes that the music represents a time before global warming caused the seasons to run together, a time when Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, the four movements in his tone poem, had distinct divisional (and tonal) qualities. The piece works as a modern take on Vivaldi's famous music, but does so more sweetly and with a more-subtle shading of colorations. Koh and Laredo do a splendid job pointing up the differing harmonic changes in the piece and emphasizing the composer's poetic musical vision.

Throughout the program the Curtis 20/20 Ensemble play as though a third member of a trio, contributing equally to the proceedings. They are not just a background accompaniment but an integral part of the music, sharing substantially in a most-pleasing outcome.

Producer Judith Sherman, engineer George Blood, and editor Bill Maylone recorded the album for Cedille Records in March 2013 at the Miriam and Robert Gould Rehearsal Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, PA. The violins sound well integrated into the complete aural structure rather than being far out in front of the orchestra. Thus, the sonic landscape is quite realistic, just as one might hear from these players live. The solo instruments appear clearly detailed, with a natural sheen on the strings yet without sounding edgy or hard. The orchestral support enjoys a similarly lifelike recording, nicely transparent but never bright or forward. In short, it's excellent sound.


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

Jun 22, 2014

From A to Z: 21st Century Concertos (CD review)

Music by Assad, Bolcom, Daugherty, and Zwilich. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, New Century Chamber Orchestra. NSS Music.

Founded in 1992, the New Century Chamber Orchestra is a small chamber ensemble dedicated to presenting classical music in a fresh and unique manner. Besides performing classic works from the chamber orchestra repertoire, New Century commissions new pieces, such as those we hear on the disc under review, concertos written expressly for the group's current Music Director and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra makes its home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it has been my privilege to hear the group play on a number of occasions. They have never failed to impress me with their musicianship, their impeccable taste, and their immense talent. Each of the twenty-odd members of the ensemble is a virtuoso player in his or her own right, and together they perform as one precision instrument. The accuracy, exactness, meticulousness, and rigor of their playing are remarkable, as exemplified by the four new works on the present album.

First up is a single-movement concerto, Dreamscapes, by Brazilian-born classical and jazz composer, arranger, pianist, and vocalist Clarice Assad (b. 1978). Dreamscapes is well named: It's a series of images from one of the composer's dreams, presented in the style of a dream with numerous shifting and conflicting moods. The NCCO offers up a vivid picture of the dream process, the composer further noting that much of it may be negative. Whatever, it provides some excellent opportunities for the various members of the orchestra, especially Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg, to shine--to show off their skills, so to speak. It's not necessarily comfortable listening--dreams often aren't--but it is always fascinating and worth the experience.

Next is a three-movement concerto, Romanza, by award-winning American composer and pianist William Bolcom (b. 1938). Bolcom's music sounds a bit more traditional than Assad's, "shamelessly Romantic" as Bolcom puts it. Just don't expect Schubert, Schumann, or Mendelssohn as you know them because Bolcom filters Romantic ideas through a twenty-first century sensibility. The lyricism and passion are there, just not the melodies we might expect of a true Romantic composer. Nevertheless, the piece follows a conventional concerto form of fast-slow-fast movements and leads us through a series of sometimes dance-like, sometimes mysterious passages, concluding with a playful ragtime tune. As always, the NCCO handles it with finesse, refinement, and utter perfection of ensemble playing.

After that we find a four-movement concerto, Fallingwater, by American composer, pianist, and teacher Michael Daugherty (b. 1954). The composer calls Fallingwater a "musical tribute to the visionary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright." The music is more descriptive than the previous selections on the disc and offers up a diverse variety of moods and visual impressions. The NCCO seems entirely attuned to its nuances and supply the rich tapestry of colors the score demands.

The program concludes with the four-movement concerto Commedia Dell-Arte by American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Here, the music portrays three different characters from Renaissance theater. It's the liveliest and most seemingly spontaneous music on the album and, for me at least, the most entertaining, particularly in its use of percussion. So, the New Century Chamber Orchestra goes out on a bang, so to speak. It's fun stuff from a really skilled group of musicians.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg executive produced and David v.R. Bowles produced, engineered, edited, and mastered the recording for Swineshead Productions and NSS Music, the orchestra recording it live in 2012. The sound is very dynamic, with a huge range from softest whispers to extra-large outbursts. The midrange is clear, if a tad hard; the bass is adequate; and the treble well extended. The string tone can be a mite edgy at times but often adds to the atmosphere of the music. Because they recorded live, one is always aware of the audience's presence throughout the program, and the engineers (or the producer or the orchestra) chose to retain the audience applause at the end of each piece. I found that the only unfortunate element of the proceedings, but that's a personal quirk on my part.


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

Jun 19, 2014

Vittorio Grigolo: The Romantic Hero (CD review)

Vittorio Grigolo, tenor; Evelino Pido, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. Sony Classical 88883 76658 2.

Here is the next installment in a series of recordings by the Italian operatic tenor I've only recently heard of. That's still not saying much, however, because I know very little about the current state of things operatic. Whatever, The Romantic Hero is Vittorio Grigolo's fifth solo album, most of them devoted to short operatic selections rather than full-length operas. It doesn't seem to matter because audiences appear to love him, and maybe the brevity of the tunes appeals more to a mass audience.

Grigolo grew up in Rome and was singing by the time he was four. He was nine when he started doing his own version of "Ave Maria," at which point his father had him audition for the Sistine Chapel Choir. There, Gigolo become a soloist with the choir, also studying for several years at the Chapel's Schola Puerorum. By his early teens he was singing at Rome's opera house; and at eighteen he joined the Vienna Opera Company, by age twenty-three becoming the youngest man to perform in Milan's La Scala.

Today, Grigolo is in his mid thirties and apparently a heartthrob the world over. Or so people tell me. On the present album he sings heroic roles from French opera. Why French opera? As Grigolo explains, "The Italian way of singing is native to me. But sometimes in life we change course to follow a sign that is not the one of our birth; instead we go forward in the ascendant. The French hero is my ascendant. It's the hero that makes me feel alive when I am on stage." Fair enough.

The tenor sings twelve selections on the disc, accompanied by Evelino Pido and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, plus on several tracks by soprano Sonya Yoncheva and speaker Alessandra Martines. The numbers include "Toute mon ame...Pourquoi m reveiller" from Jules Massenet's Werther; "L'amour! L'amour!...Ah! leve-toi, soleil!" from Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette; "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee" from Georges Bizet's Carmen; "Quel trouble inconnu...Salut, demeure chaste et pure" from Gounod's Faust; "Instant charmant...En fermant les yeux" from Massenet's Manon; "Pays merveilleux...O paradis" from Giacomo Meyerbeer's L'Africaine; "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" from Jacques Fromental Halevy's La Juive; "Et moi? Moi, la fidele amie...O Dieus! de quelle ivresse" from Jacques Offenbach's Le Contes d'Hoffmann; "Va! Je t'ai pardonne...Nuit d'hymenee," again from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette; "Ah! tout est bien fini...O souverain, o juge, o pere" from Massenet's Le Cid; and "C'est la! Salut tombeau sombre et silencieux," yet again from Gounod's Romeo et Juliet.

Grigolo gets plenty of chances on the program to show off not only his power, tone, and control but his lyricism. That latter quality is probably the keynote of the present album, the selections carefully chosen to highlight the tenor's sweet intonation and well-judged inflections. In this regard, French opera seems perfectly suited to his voice, Italian or not.

For me, being but a fledgling in the field of opera, Grigolo's voice seems fine, although I thought at times there was a little more vibrato in it than I'm used to. Still, it adds to the lyric characteristics of most of the music. Otherwise, he floats the notes in fairly pure fashion, and when he needs to pour on the strength, there is plenty in reserve. The Faust selection demonstrates this ability to good effect, the hushed, quiet moments most telling. He hasn't perhaps the ability (yet) completely to thrill a listener and make one's hair stand on end the way a Domingo or Pavarotti have, but he does provide compensating dramatic skills that make his performances pleasurable.

The orchestra under the directorship of Maestro Pido does its best merely to stay out of Grigolo's way, and rightly so as this is his show from beginning to end. Soprano Sonya Yoncheva accompanies Grigolo on the "Instant charmant" and "Va! Je t'ai pardonne" tracks but, again, one hardly notices (although, to be fair, Ms. Yoncheva fares better in the second number).

Favorites? Everyone who listens to the disc will have favorites, and they will invariably be different. I enjoyed the Meyerbeer and Offenbach selections the most, but I am perhaps overly sentimental. They come through with a poignant spirit and moving grace.

One thing's for sure: Grigolo will not leave his fans disappointed with this album. There's enough romance to go around and enough force and conviction to reach almost any heart or mind.

Producer Chris Alder and engineer Douglas Ward recorded the songs at the Auditorium RAI "A. Toscanini," Torino, Italy in June and July, 2013. The voice is full and round, smoothly realistic, with very little shrillness or edginess except a trace in loudest passages. However, it is very close, up front, with the orchestra well behind. The orchestral sound is warm, slightly soft, and comfortable, often not even noticeable. The accompaniment, in fact, seems mostly perfunctory, the voice being the main thing here.

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

Jun 18, 2014

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (SACD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. PentaTone Classics 5186 118.

I was talking to a friend recently who reminded me that as time goes on things may evolve and grow different, but they don't necessarily get better. Conductors fit into this category, too. Not all of the great conductors of the past necessarily got any better with age than they had been; indeed, some of them simply grow old and stodgy. But thank goodness we have recordings to preserve the great ones in their prime, such being the case with Sir Neville Marriner and his wonderful 1970 recording of the Beethoven First and Second Symphonies.

We take for granted today a small chamber orchestra playing early Beethoven, often on the same period instruments Beethoven had in mind. But do we recognize that Sir Neville was among the first persons actually to effect something like this with his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields? By paring down what had become traditionally big-scale orchestral music, with often inflated interpretations for full orchestras, Marriner was able to show us the grace and inner beauty of the composer's first two symphonic efforts, if on modern instruments.

I had not heard Marriner's recordings of these works in years before listening to them again on this 2003 PentaTone remastering, and I was amazed at how well they held up, comparing to any recordings of these pieces by any conductor at any price. Not only do the two symphonies come off as elegant and refined, as we would expect of Sir Neville, but they are wholly charming, flexible, supple, enchanting, exciting, and exhilarating as well. These early symphonies may not match what the great composer had in store for us next with his monumental Third Symphony, but Marriner renders these first two of Beethoven's symphonic works as both felicitous extensions of the Classical age and clear precursors of the Romantic era.

The sound holds up equally well, too. Recorded initially by Philips in quadraphonic, the company only released them on LP in two-channel stereo. Yet here they are available, as usual with PentaTone, on a hybrid SACD stereo/multichannel disc in both two and four-channel sound. What's more, the PentaTone engineers remastered them from the original tapes, and they sound at once smooth, spacious, transparent, warm, and natural. I liked almost everything about this disc and its performances, and even after more than four decades they can stand alongside the best available in this repertoire.


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

Jun 16, 2014

Rossini: Overtures (CD review)

William Tell and other overtures. Roy Goodman, The Hanover Band. Newton Classics 8802219.

There isn't exactly a shortage of Rossini overture recordings on the market, but there are surprisingly few of them done on period instruments in historically informed performances. For the past couple of decades the two leading contenders in this specialized field have been Roy Goodman's recording with the Hanover Band, reissued here by Newton Classics, and Roger Norrington's renditions with the London Classical Players on EMI (now Warner Classics). Of the two, Norrington is probably the more refined, more cultured, but I've never been entirely sure that was what every prospective buyer of a period-instruments recording wanted. Goodman's accounts appear just as well played but a bit more rustic and bucolic. It's good to have them back in this mid-priced release.

Goodman provides seven of Rossini's most-famous overtures including La scala di seta ("The Silken Ladder"), L'Italiana in Algeri ("The Italian Girl in Algiers"), Il barbiere di Siviglia ("The Barber of Seville"), La gazza ladra ("The Thieving Magpie"), Semiramide, Le siege de Corinthe ("The Siege of Corinth"), and Guillaume Tell ("William Tell"). It's interesting to note that most of Rossini's overtures have become more popular and receive more performances than the operas from which they come.

Anyway, the program begins with La scala di seta, which pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the selections. Not only do we hear the characteristic sound of a period ensemble, especially from the strings and percussion, but we get tempos that seem neither exaggerated nor tedious. In fact, they always sound just right, with any variations needed to provide contrast. What's more, the orchestra play with admirable virtuosity and zeal, and the audio engineers capturing them in a well-balanced manner. This is a far cry from some shrill, raggedy-Annie period performances with claims to historical accuracy at the expense of listenability.

And so it goes throughout the program. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic impact in L'Italiana in Algeri, the spirited enthusiasm in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and those blazing timpani in La gazza ladra. Goodman's performances are bold yet pleasingly stylish, providing thrills and thought in equal measure.

Which brings us to the William Tell overture, whose celebrated closing galop ("March of the Swiss Soldiers") stirred every kid's imagination in The Lone Ranger. The piece begins with three sections describing the prelude to a storm, the storm itself, and the calm following the storm. Goodman handles these segments in appropriately colorful interpretations, the storm getting a remarkably blustery treatment. And that final heroic galop? While it may not convey all the visceral excitement of some other renditions, it should prove gracefully enduring.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Tony Faulkner recorded the music originally for RCA (BMG Classics) at Abbey Road Studios, London, in 1994, and Newton Classics reissued it in 2014. In terms of sonic quality, naturalness and clarity are the orders of the day. Definition sounds commendable and dynamics are wide and strong, while an overall smoothness ensures that the proceedings go as realistically as possible. A modest hall resonance helps, along with a moderately distanced miking arrangement. Additionally, there is a fair amount of orchestral depth and spaciousness to add to the illusion. It makes for an appealing audio experience, maybe not quite as transparent as the sound for Norrington on EMI but not quite as bright or aggressive, either.


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

Jun 15, 2014

C.P.E. Bach: Berlin Symphonies (CD review)

Hartmut Haenchen, Kammerorchester C.P.E. Bach. Brilliant Classics 94777.

It seems that every few years we go through a C.P.E. Bach renaissance. C.P.E comes and goes in the public's consciousness, and these days he appears to be in again. With that in mind, I thought it of interest to review this 2014 Brilliant Classics reissue of a spirited 1985 Capriccio album of C.P.E. Bach's Berlin Symphonies from Maestro Hartmut Haenchen and the C.P.E. Chamber Orchestra.

Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the eldest of Johann Sebastian's several musically inclined children (actually the fifth child and the second son), and, more important, he's the one who gets most of the attention today. C.P.E. falls into the transition period between the Baroque and Classical eras, and thus we find elements of both styles in his music. His own approach to music combined the best of both worlds, although he leaned toward what critics of the time called the "sensitive style"; that is, one that expressed "true and natural" feelings with sudden contrasts in mood as opposed to the more-popular "rococo style" that emphasized simplicity and immediacy of appeal.

In any case, the present disc contains five of the nine symphonies C.P.E wrote while living in Berlin (1738-1768). A booklet note tells us that audiences of the day tended to judge the worth of a composition on its degree of novelty, and "the widespread acclaim that C.P.E. Bach won all over Europe was due in large measure to his originality and wealth of invention." In the words of musicologist Jan LaRue, "Once a Bach symphony has got under way in the usual fashion, some intriguing detail may 'crop up' any moment: a forbidden dissonance, a mighty thunderclap, a headlong rush downwards, an abrupt change of tempo or a surprising modulation." And so it goes with the five symphonies on Maestro Haenchen's disc.

The works included are the Symphony in E flat, Wq179 (H654); Symphony in F, Wq181 (H656); Symphony in C, Wq174 (H649); Symphony in F, Wq175 (H650); and Symphony in E minor, Wq178 (H653). Haenchen and his chamber orchestra play the works on modern instruments, but they provide sparkling performances--buoyant, breezy, and well judged.

I suppose I would have liked hearing these works played on period instruments; I've gotten used to such things over time. Still, given the modern instruments employed, it's quite pleasurable, and, of course, listeners who don't like period instruments will find it exactly right. The sound of the ensemble is smooth, elegant, and refined, whereas period instruments would have given the sound a slightly rougher, more-rustic quality.

That said, Maestro Haenchen's performances of these little three-movement symphonies are lively and invigorating, providing much charm in the process. They bustle with good cheer, vitality, and brilliant playing. There is nothing lax about the slow movements, either; indeed, if anything, Haenchen takes them a tad too quickly for my taste. But he is imaginative, keeping Bach's invention foremost in mind, and sometimes that requires a fairly vigorous and flexible tempo.

In the Symphony in F (H656), for instance, the last of the Berlin symphonies Bach wrote, Haenchen pounces on every contrast and every turbulent characteristic he can find, emphasizing them with zest. In the Andante, he maintains a strong forward momentum, and in the concluding Allegro assai he provides a welcome sense of fun.

And so it goes. I can't say I really loved any of these symphonies, despite Bach's attempts at doing daring things for his day and the critical acclaim he received. The music continues to sound rather too much the same to me, a bit too formulaic. (H650 sounds the most modern, "modern" for the times in any case.) Nevertheless, I can't imagine this music being any better played than it is here, unless maybe, as I've said, the orchestra had played it on period instruments.

The C.P.E. Bach Chamber Orchestra made the recording for the Capriccio label at Christuskirche Berlin in March 1985, with producer Heinz Wegner and recording engineer Hartmut Kolbach taking care of the technical details. Brilliant Classics reissued the disc in 2014. The orchestral sound seems a tad bright, but there's no questioning its clarity, openness, and air. I liked how well the detail and definition come through, and I enjoyed hearing the ensemble's scope and depth and dimensionality, even if it comes at the expense of some small degree of natural warmth.


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

Jun 12, 2014

Myung Whun Chung: Piano (CD review)

Myung Whun Chung, piano. ECM New Series 2342 481 0765.

While many of us think of Myung Whun Chung foremost as a South Korean conductor, working in recent years with the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, we may forget that he is also a pianist. Even Chung recognizes this fact, admitting in a booklet note that "although I don't consider myself a 'real' pianist anymore, the idea that my grandchildren would be able to hear this music from my heart was very appealing." So what we have on this album, simply titled Piano, is a collection of Chung's favorite piano works, dedicated to his children and grandchildren, most of the pieces having a direct connection to Chung's own experience. The selections are all quite familiar, but Chung presents them in a most-heartfelt manner. "This record," he says, "is my personal musical thanks to all who share my love for the wonderful music."

As with so many collections, the first item on the program sets the tone for what's to follow. In this case, Chung has chosen Claude Debussy's Clair de lune, that gossamer-light impressionistic work we've all heard so many times. Chung plays it in a simple, straightforward manner, yet he clearly wears his heart on his sleeve, playing it slowly and with great feeling. Still, while Chung is unafraid to let his emotions show, he never actually sentimentalizes the music but allows its overt Romanticism to speak for itself. It's quite lovely.

Next up Frederic Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27/2, and again we hear the same charming simplicity from Chung, the music flowing in a sincere, deeply felt stream of notes, with absolutely nothing showy, exaggerated, or idiosyncratically mannered.

And so it goes. Beethoven's Fur Elise is appealingly intimate and moving, all the while never lagging. Tchaikovsky's Autumn Song, "October" in the cycle of piano pieces the composer called The Seasons, sounds most poignant, a touch of melancholy bringing to mind the end of an old year and the coming of winter. Schubert's Impromptu in E-flat major shows Chung in another, more-virtuosic light, proving he is, indeed, a 'real' pianist, whether he likes it or not. His fingers dance over the keyboard, displaying a brilliant dexterity for one who has apparently given up the piano for conducting.

One of the highlights of the program for me was Schumann's Traumerei ("Dreaming") from his set of piano pieces Kinderszenen ("Scenes of Childhood"). Like his rendition of Clair de Lune, Chung's Traumerei is gentle and sweet, a genuinely hushed dream. Following that we get a second work from Schumann: Arabeske, a much more-colorful piece of music in which Chung commands a good variety of emotions.

The disc winds down with a second Impromptu from Schubert, this one in G-flat major, a "song without words." Chung gives the piece a voice, strong and tender. Then, it's another of Chopin's Nocturnes, this one in C-sharp minor, with Chung well catching its shifting moods. Finally, the program ends with Mozart's variations on "Ah! vois dirai-je, Maman," a French children's song we probably know better as "Twinkle, twinkle little star." It is undoubtedly Chung's reminder to us that he dedicated the album to his children and grandchildren. Chung has a good deal of fun with it, and the music brings the program to a delightful conclusion.

I don't think anyone, least of all Chung (who seems from his writing a most modest and humble gentleman), would consider these interpretation definitive. But they are forthright and honest and certainly pleasurable. In addition, as with most of ECM's products, the disc and case come enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover. What more can one ask for?

ECM recorded the music in July 2013 at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy. The engineers caught the audio in a warmly ambient environment that greatly flatters the music. Although the piano sounds well detailed and fairly dynamic, it is also warm and cozy, miked at a moderate distance for an easy, natural, realistic listening experience.


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

Jun 11, 2014

Lalo: Symphonie espagnole (CD review)

Also, Saint-Saens: Violin Concerto No. 3; Ravel:  Tzigane. Maxim Vengerov, violin; Antonio Pappano, Philharmonia Orchestra. Warner Classics.

Maybe at the time I wrote this review it was French composer Edouard Lalo's (1832–92) turn in the sun. I had no sooner reviewed a Naxos disc of the Symphonie espagnole, saying it didn't get recorded nearly as often as it should, than this 2003 release of the Symphonie arrived from EMI with Maxim Vengerov playing the violin, Antonio Pappano directing, and Philharmonia Orchestra in support. If I had some minor qualifications about the Naxos issue, I had no such reservations about the EMI and can continue to recommend it heartily, reissued under its new label, Warner Classics.

The Symphonie espagnole, which despite its title is actually a concerto for violin, is  fine, of course, and Vengerov plays it with appropriate sparkle, polish, and élan. But it's really the accompanying piece, the Third Violin Concerto by French composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835–1921), that knocked me over, especially the work's slow middle movement, the Andantino. I've seldom heard it sound so ravishingly beautiful and expressive. It's probably the one piece by Saint-Saens that comes closest to the serene loveliness of his "Swan" from the Carnival of the Animals, and Vengerov makes the most of it.

Anyway, Vengerov produces a ravishing tone with his violin, and Pappano and the Philharmonia Orchestra provide sympathetic support in both works. Along with a brilliant performance of Maurice Ravel's Tzigane, Rhapsody de concert the program makes a most-attractive hour or so of music making.

Like the Naxos disc I had listened to previously, the EMI disc sounds wide ranging and natural, but with the added benefit of greater clarity. For this review, I compared the 2003 EMI to an older, 1976 EMI disc of the Symphonie with violinist Yan Pascal Tortelier, Maestro Louis Fremaux, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, plus a newer, 2013 Warner Classics disc with violinist Alexandre Da Costa, Maestro Carlos Kalmar, and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Ratio Television Espanola. Here, it was the Vengerov disc that sounded slightly more open and more transparent to me. I still have no hesitation recommending the Naxos, the earlier EMI, the later Warner Classics disc, or even some real oldies including Heifetz and Stern, among others, but if one wants to sample all of the best, the Vengerov disc (as I say, now available from Warner Classics, who took over the EMI label) is well worth one's investment of time and money.


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

Jun 9, 2014

Handel: Teseo, highlights (CD review)

Dominique Labelle, Amanda Forsythe, Amy Freston, Drew Minter, Robin Blaze, Celine Ricci; Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-07.

There are probably a few things you should know before considering this recording of Handel's opera seria Teseo by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Maestro Nicholas McGegan, and a sterling cast. First, there is a reason why some music seldom gets recorded; Teseo isn't exactly a barnburner, and you'll find very few recorded performances of it. It didn't do too well in Handel's time, either, and until now it hasn't done all that well in our own time.

Second, there are a couple of technical issues one needs to address. Namely, Philharmonia Baroque Productions made the recording live, with all its attendant shortcomings in audience and stage noise. In addition, as it is a highlights disc, there are some frankly odd editing quirks involved. More on this later.

Finally, if one is truly to enjoy the performance, one has to erase memories of Abe Vigoda's role of Sal Tessio in The Godfather. Absolutely no relationship, but I had trouble thinking of Handel anytime I heard the name Teseo.

Fortunately, none of this makes a lot of difference because the cast, the orchestra, the conducting, and the performances are so good.

German composer George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) wrote Teseo as his third opera after settling permanently in England. Following the opera's première in 1713, it received about a dozen more performances and then basically dropped off the map. The story, set in ancient Greece, involves all kinds of romances, several pairs of lovers, treacheries, sorcery, and a few lighthearted exchanges. A few interesting characteristics of the opera are that Handel composed it in five acts rather than his usual three, possibly a reflection of the libretto's French origins (Lully); unlike much of his compositional work, he used almost no borrowings from his own previous music; and he scored most of the roles for high voices.

Soprano Dominique Labelle plays Medea; soprano Amanda Forsythe plays Teseo; soprano Amy Freston is Agilea; countertenors Drew Minter and Robin Blaze are Egeo and Arcane; soprano Celine Ricci is Clizia; baritone Jeffrey Fields plays a priest of Minerva; and tenor Jonathan Smucker plays the Chorus.

Anyway, the important thing is how it comes off, which is very well, indeed. As usual, the Philharmonia Baroque play exquisitely, with a healthy appetite for Handel's rhythms. In other words, they play with a lively bounce and are always a pleasure to hear. Equally important, the singers are splendid, especially Ms. Labelle and Ms. Forsythe. They bring a drama and warmth to the roles that seem unbeatable, and their art is letter perfect.

Let me put it another way: While there is little in Handel's opera that one might say is truly memorable (I doubt you will find yourself humming any passages after hearing it), the PBO and singers make it all highly enjoyable as you're listening to it. The performance sounds continuously joyful, and one cannot fault any part it.

Now, about those couple of drawbacks: Because of the live recording, we get all of the associated problems such an occasion offers. We are always aware of the audience presence, their breathing, their coughing, their reactions, and their occasional shuffling of feet. Moreover, there is a small amount of stage noise to contend with, as well as applause. Yes, that applause. As is their wont, opera fans tend to break out into applause at every other note a singer utters. Thankfully, the engineer edited out a good deal of that applause but much of it still remains. Don't get me wrong; I love live performances...when I'm there myself, live and present. But a recording cannot fool me into believing there's a live audience in my living room, where I expect an entirely different experience, noise-free.

Then there's the matter of the editing. The disc offers a collection of highlights from the complete opera performance, so, of course, we expect to find the selections edited. However, many of the edits at the end of tracks seem downright awkward to me, cutting off notes, cutting off or fading out on applause, and making sometimes ungainly transitions.

David v.R. Bowles produced, engineered, edited, and mastered the recording, which he made at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, CA in April 2013. The live sound he obtained is pretty much as I remember it from my many visits to First Congregational over the years. There's a pleasantly light, reverberant bloom to the sound, all of the instruments come through with solidity and clarity, and voices are reasonably natural throughout. Perhaps because of the live recording, there is a slight degree of brightness to the sound, but if anything it adds to the orchestral transparency. Still, I think the overall sound quality could have been better without a live audience present and maybe if the engineer had made it in one of the PBO's other recording venues. My guess is that cost constraints play a big part in live vs. studio recording.


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

Jun 8, 2014

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (XRCD24 review)

Paul Kletzki, Philharmonia Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD26.

Now, here's the thing: Audiophile companies that remaster older recordings usually choose classic releases that most of the record-buying public already know and adore. They rely on the customer recognizing the recording, perhaps an old favorite, and wanting to own the recording in restored, up-to-date sound. That is, after all, how audiophile restoration companies make their money. And until the present disc, that has been the operating mode for major restoration companies like Hi-Q, FIM, and HDTT. Then along comes this Hi-Q remastering of Sibelius's Second Symphony with conductor Paul Kletzki and throws that whole procedure off.

I mean, I've been reading about, talking about, listening to, evaluating, and comparing classical recordings for well over half a century, and I've never once heard mention of Kletzki's Sibelius Second. Yet here it is, remastered in all its early stereo glory. And make no mistake: This is a great performance in good sound. I can only surmise that somebody in the Hi-Q organization loved this particular recording and figured it would make a nice transfer, public recognition be hanged. Or, what do I know, maybe everybody but me knows Kletzki's Sibelius, and I'm more sheltered than I know. In any case, the recording belies its 1955 origins and offers an interpretation second to none. If you have the money for such things, it's a possible consideration.

So, who was Paul Kletzki? He was a Polish conductor and composer of the mid twentieth century (1900-1973) who was semi-famous in his day but rather overshadowed by the giants of the time like Toscanini, Stokowski, Reiner, Walter, Klemperer, Bernstein, Ormandy, Szell, and the like. I know Kletzki mainly because he conducted one of my favorite recordings of all time: the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 with Maurizio Pollini and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). And he conducted a very exciting rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, also for EMI. In the mid Fifties he was the chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; in the late Fifties he was the conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; and by the late Sixties he was the General Music Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. For the most part, though, Kletzki ran under the radar, making only a relative handful of stereo recordings before his death. Which brings us to the fortunate circumstance of the present disc--an outstanding achievement and for many people like me a newly discovered gem.

Anyway, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and it has since become one of his most-popular works, probably his most-popular symphony in any case. The listening public quickly dubbed it his "Symphony of Independence," although no one is sure whether Sibelius really intended any symbolic significance in the piece. Even so, it ends in a gloriously victorious finale that surely draws out a feeling of freedom and self-reliance in the music.

The symphony begins with a generally sunny style, building to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure. Remarkably, Kletzki keeps the pace moving along briskly without ever seeming rushed. Of the half dozen other versions of the Sibelius I had on hand from Barbirolli, Davis, Karajan, Monteux, and such, the conductors take just a little over ten minutes to get through the first movement. Kletzki takes just a little over nine minutes. But, as I say, the music never feels hurried. Indeed, it seems just right, with a wonderful building and release of tensions along with a sweet, free-flowing spirit. While the music may appear fragmentary, Kletzki keeps it together with a delightful balance and precision.

Sibelius marked the second movement Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow a conductor more personal expression. This second movement begins with a distant drumroll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses that never sounded so enchanting as under Kletzki. As changing the tempo seems the conductor's favorite device, this movement suits him well.

The third-movement scherzo is a dazzling display of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme. Under Kletzki it bounces around at first with an admirable liveliness before moving into its more-pastoral theme, then its stormy midsection, and its tranquil conclusion. Again, the conductor finds just the right progressions to make all of this flow smoothly together, including a seamless transition into the Finale.

Then, the Finale bursts forth in explosive radiance--thrilling and patriotic. Oddly, it is only in this final movement that I thought Kletzki could have sounded even more stately and heroic. Still, he maintains a heady gait, keeping the momentum moving always forward and the music's fervor intense. No, Kletzki's reading doesn't displace my favorite recordings with Sir John Barbirolli and the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky) and Halle Orchestra (EMI), but it's close enough that Kletzki deserves a listen.

EMI producer Walter Legge and engineers Douglas Larter and Neville Boyling made the recording in July 1955 at Kingsway Hall, London. Yes, I said 1955. That means the recording comes from the beginning of the home-stereo era and has to be one of EMI's earliest stereo efforts. Obviously, because I had never heard of the recording before, I had no original disc on hand with which to compare this one; nevertheless, I can't imagine any previous CD or LP of the recording being any better. If played at high volume there is a slight tape hiss one hears in the quietest passages; at a normal listening level, however, the background noise becomes almost unnoticeable. There is no point in the symphony, however, that the orchestra ever sounds bright, forward, hard, thin, or anything but warm and natural. It's so good, in fact, it keeps you wondering how the sound could be this good for such a vintage. With all the advancements in audio technology, you'd think there would be a night-and-day difference between contemporary sound and early stereo sound, but no, there isn't all that much. Indeed, the sound here is almost as good as many things recorded today. The sound Hi-Q (JVC XRCD24 remastered) afforded Kletzki on this disc is big, open, resonant, dimensional, and, in short, realistic. The only areas in which it comes up a tad short are in terms ultimate midrange transparency and maximum dynamics. And in the final movement the stereo image seems to shift too far to the left. Aside from that, it's remarkable sound for its age.

As always, the folks at Hi-Q provide a premium product and a premium package, a glossy, hard cardboard and plastic Digipak-type container, the booklet notes sewn book-like into the center, the disc fastened to the inside back cover. You'll find Hi-Q's products on-line from any number of vendors, but among those sites offering the best prices is Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/Sibelius-Symphony-No-2-In-D-Major-XRCD24/productinfo/HIQSXR26/


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

Jun 5, 2014

Dvorak: Cello Concerto (HDCD review)

Pierre Fourier, cello; George Szell, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD347.

I was lucky enough to have begun listening seriously to classical music at the beginning of the stereo era in the mid Fifties, so I've had the chance to experience a wide variety of recordings from almost all of the world's record companies. One of the things that always struck me about Deutsche Grammophon in particular is how wonderfully well they recorded solo instruments--piano, violin, cello in this case--and how ordinary they managed orchestral music. While solo instruments always sounded perfectly natural, detailed, and clean, their orchestral sound was most often either thin, bright, and hard or thin, bright, and soft. There have been notable exceptions, of course, but this beautifully remastered DG recording from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) isn't one of them. In fact, it's a perfect example of what I've been hearing from DG for over half a century: in this case, a cello sound that is gorgeous and an orchestral sound that's merely adequate.

Fortunately, HDTT chose another genuine classic to remaster, and one can hardly argue the importance of this 1961 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto from cellist Pierre Fournier, Maestro George Szell, and the mighty Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. They produce an interpretation of grand scope and majestic design, the ebb and flow of the music perfectly judged. Interestingly, though, HDTT have also remastered Maurice Gendron's version of the Dvorak concerto with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic, which is an equally good performance with not quite so good a cello sound but a fuller, more-natural orchestral sound. Decisions, decisions.

Anyway, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 relatively late in his career, in 1895, and it has since become one of the most-popular cello concertos in the field. One can hardly discount its late-Romantic qualities, its copious melodies, and its lusty emotions.

Dvorak begins the concerto with a lengthy and stately orchestral introduction before the cello enters, an introduction that references both of the work's two main themes to come, and Szell handles things grandly. Yet when Fournier enters he fully measures up to the conductor's prodigious orchestral contributions, both soloist and orchestra playing with zest, enthusiasm, and an almost electric spark. Fournier attacks the first-movement as few others have even attempted, with no lack of virtuosity in his technique. It's a magical and exciting performance from everyone concerned, uplifting the music to heights hardly seen before or since.

Then we get the central Adagio, which should flow gently along like a slow-moving stream, wistfully, with a touch of sadness. It may have been the illness and eventual death of Dvorak's sister-in-law, with whom he had once been in love, that shared in the melancholy of this and the final segment of the concerto. Although there is never a hint of maudlin sentimentality here, there is nevertheless a sense of profound pensive yearning. It is also here that the partnership of Fournier and Szell proves most fortuitous, the voices of the cello and orchestra intertwining and interacting rapturously.

Lastly, the finale seethes with energy, ending as I say with another touch of melancholy in a climactic love duet before the work's heroic close. The Berlin Philharmonic dazzles us with its skills in the opening moments, a march that opens into a kind of peasant dance soon taken up with rhythmic spring by the soloist. Fournier and Szell again show us why they worked so well together, Fournier coaxing a lushly wistful tone from his cello and Szell matching it with a hearty yet respectful accompaniment. They close the piece in a golden glow.

HDTT transferred the recording in 2014 from a DG 4-track tape originally recorded in June 1961 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany. I mentioned at the outset that the orchestral sound is a tad bright, forward, and thin at the bottom end. So it is, yet it is also quite firm and clean, with a nice sense of dimensionality; and for its somewhat hard high-end brightness there is a compensating midrange warmth that sounds quite pleasant. But the real story is the cello sound, which is ravishing. The instrument is well out front, yet that's perhaps appropriate, and the richness of its tone is difficult to deny. It's one of the best cello sounds you'll hear on record.

For further information on HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.


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

Jun 4, 2014

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (CD review)

Complete suites from the ballet. Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80597.

If you already have Prokofiev's complete Romeo and Juliet ballet (my favorites are from Andre Previn on EMI and Lorin Maazel on Decca), or if listening to the whole ballet doesn't interest you, or if you can't find Erich Leinsdorf's excellent highlights from the ballet on a Sheffield gold disc, then Paavo Jarvi's 2003 Telarc release of the three suites is as good a choice in this music as most any around.

Prokofiev completed his ballet in 1935, but it hardly met with instant success. The Bolshoi rejected it as too difficult to dance to, and Prokofiev presented the first two suites from the work in public before premiering the ballet itself, which didn't get an official performance until 1940. In 1946 the composer gleaned a third suite of music from the complete work, and Telarc give us all three suites on the present disc.

Since Prokofiev intended this particular music to be highly descriptive, the composer taking us carefully through Shakespeare's play practically scene by scene, he opens the score to a wide range of interpretation. I thought Jarvi sometimes seemed a bit too rushed, as in the episodes describing the young Juliet, but one can understand Jarvi's intention in showing us a very youthful, high-spirited, and perhaps immature girl. Mainly, though, Jarvi keeps his attention focused on the music and clearly establishes the nature of each character and each event.

I've always thought Suite No. 2 contained the best music, with No. 3 something of an afterthought, but Jarvi gives each piece the concentration it deserves. The only real problem is trying to follow the storyline when the suites sort of jumble up the plot events. Still, it's the music that counts, and Jarvi does well enough to convey the score's color, grace, and excitement.

The Telarc engineers recorded the music in November 2002 and February 2003 in the Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. They appear to get some of their best sound out of the Cincinnati players, whether it's the Symphony Orchestra or its counterpart Pops ensemble, and this disc is no exception. I admit there is a degree more hall haze and bass resonance than in many of Erich Kunzel's pop-classical recordings for Telarc and consequently a little less definition, but Telarc nonetheless afford Jarvi some decent acoustics. While the bass sounds especially prominent, as it should sound in things like the "Dance of the Knights," "Montagues and Capulets," and the big death scenes, the subtler sequences are notable, too, particularly for their quiet moments. The sound is closer to that of a live, resonant musical experience than it is to typically ultra-clear audiophile-type sonics, and as such it's fine.

With all-around good performances and attractive concert-hall sound, this one makes an easy recommendation, if maybe not quite a first choice.


To listen to a few brief excerpts 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