Jul 31, 2014

Mancini: Music for Peter Gunn (CD review)

Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble New York. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907624.

If you're old enough, you may remember a Blake Edwards TV show from the late Fifties called Peter Gunn. The thing is, if you do remember it, I'd be willing to bet you remember the show's theme music better than you do the show itself. Much like the show's main character (a private eye played by Craig Stevens), the music was laid-back and cool.

Henry Mancini (1924-1994), one of Hollywood's most popular and prolific television and movie composers, wrote the music, which went on to win two Grammys and an Emmy award. In fact, Peter Gunn (1958-61) pretty much put Mancini on the map after he had toiled in relative obscurity in the movie industry for half a dozen years previously. From then on, though, it was all a rise to the top with one hit after another: Mr. Lucky, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Days of Wine and Roses, Charade, The Pink Panther series, The Great Race, 10, and hundreds more.

But here's another thing: I'd also be willing to bet that it's only the familiar Peter Gunn theme you remember and not all of the other background music Mancini wrote for the show. It's both the theme and associated music you get on this album: a modern recording of sixteen tracks, over fifty minutes, of music performed by the prestigious Harmonie Ensemble New York lead by conductor Steven Richman.

Of course, the music on the album is not entirely complete. For that you'd have to find the two-disc CD set containing all four of the LP's Mancini released of music from and inspired by Peter Gunn. But it wouldn't sound as good as the present album, and a lot of it might begin seeming a bit repetitious. Anyway, whether you're interested in the Peter Gunn music for purely nostalgic, sentimental reasons or because you like its West Coast Cool style of jazz, Richman's interpretations of the score and Harmonia Mundi's recording of it should fill the order.

While the main theme is every bit as jazzy and cool as we remember it, the other tracks are almost as engrossing. The Harmonie Ensemble use essentially the same orchestrations and instrumentations but have a style all their own. The ensemble's players are all virtuoso jazz or classical players in their own right, and many audiophiles will recognize the pianist, Lincoln Mayorga, for his celebrated Sheffield Lab direct-to-disc recordings. Make no mistake: This group knows what it's about and plays with a precision that most jazz bands only dream about.

OK, I know that one criticism from some jazz fans is going to be that the Harmonie Ensemble actually play too precisely, too articulately, that with their slick sophistication they lose a little something in the way of spontaneity and improvisation, a staple of most jazz. Yet for these arrangements of TV music, they sound just right, adding inflections and nuances to create atmosphere and moods that practically having us seeing the old show in our mind's eye.

Favorites? Yes, I loved "Sorta Blue," with its obviously bluesy tone; "Session at Pete's Pad," with its carefree nonchalance; "Slow and Easy," with its quietly passionate airs; "Brief and Easy," with its Sinatra-like manner; "Blue Steel," with its aggressive rhythms; and an equally forceful closing rendition of the main theme. Fun stuff, all the way around.

To complete the package, Harmonia Mundi provide a light-cardboard slipcover for the CD jewel case. Again, I'm not sure why, but it classes up the joint.

Recording and mastering engineer Adam Abeshouse and producer Robina G. Young made the album in June 2012 at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City. Sonically, you couldn't ask for more in this genre. The sound is wide-ranging and transparent; the highs shimmer and glisten; the lows have punch; the dynamics are commendable; and the midrange clarity is exemplary. What's more (and somewhat unexpected), there's a nice sense of depth to the ensemble and air around the instruments. The sound engineers handle it all quite realistically.


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

Jul 30, 2014

Lalo: Symphonie espagnole (CD review)

Also, Ravel: Tzigane; Saint-Saens: Havanaise; Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy. Howard Zhang, violin; Takuo Yuasa, Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia. Naxos 8.555093.

The composers are French and Spanish. The violinist was born in China. The conductor is Japanese. The orchestra is Hungarian. Naxos pressed the disc in Canada. And Naxos originated as a German-based operation, pressing most of its discs in Germany. They don't call Naxos an international company for nothing.

Anyway, you could do a lot worse than spending what Naxos or a secondhand vendor asks for this splendid reissued disc of French and Spanish music. The young violinist, Howard Zhang, was born in Shanghai in 1984, and moved to the U.S. in 1989. He is dynamic and virtuosic; the accompaniment from the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia under the direction of Tajuo Yuasa appears fairly refined and accommodating; and, best of all, the sound is among the best Naxos has done.

The Symphonie espagnole is especially engrossing, not only because it doesn't get recorded nearly as often as it should but because Mr. Zhang plays it so enthusiastically. Despite its title, the so-called "symphonie" is actually a concerto for violin, and as such it amply displays the violinist's prowess with his instrument. Zhang is quite brilliant, and if his fervor sometimes overrides his subtlety, well, it's the spirit that counts. The performance is full of energy and verve, directly and simply communicated.

The Ravel, Saint-Saens, and Sarasate pieces show Zhang's less passionate side as well, yet still display a good deal of showmanship. While there are already many fine recordings of the Tzigane, Havanaise, and Carmen Fantasy in the catalogue, Zhang's interpretations are at least as persuasive as most of them.

Naxos's sound is wide ranging and reasonably natural. It was only when I put on an old disc of the Symphonie with Tortelier, Fremaux, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 1976) that I noticed the extra clarity, definition, and bite in the older recording. But given that the older disc, issued on EMI's Studio label, no longer seems available and is probably hard to find, I have no hesitation recommending this Naxos issue at an affordable price.


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

Jul 28, 2014

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Daniel Dodds, Festival Strings Lucerne. PentaTone PTC 5186 479. 

The last time I visited the German classical violinist Arabella Steinbacher, she was doing the Bruch Violin Concerto for PentaTone. Now she's back with the last three of Mozart's five violin concertos, this time accompanied by Daniel Dodds and the Festival Strings Lucerne. For those of you not acquainted with Ms. Steinbacher, she has won several important international violin prizes, she has recorded over half a dozen albums, and she was a recipient of an Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation scholarship.

Ms. Steinbacher tells us in a booklet note that "It was finally time for Mozart. These concertos have been with me since early childhood, forming an important leitmotiv throughout my career. Since I associate many memories with them, I feel they are very close to my heart." Fair enough. But understand she is up against formidable competition in these pieces, particularly from Anne-Sophie Mutter (DG), Lara St. John (Ancalagon), David Oistrakh (EMI), and Arthur Grumiaux (Philips), among many others. Still, if one is looking for an especially warmhearted, elegant, and graceful account of these concertos, done up in quite good SACD sound, Ms. Steinbacher neatly fills the bill.

There are some pluses to the album right off the bat. First, Ms. Steinbacher provides three of the violin concertos on the program whereas most other discs offer but two. As Shakespeare's Friar Laurence would say, "There art thou happy." Second, Ms. Steinbacher performs with the Festival Strings Lucerne, one of Europe's finest chamber orchestras, lean enough in size to offer a zesty and fairly transparent accompaniment. "There art thou happy." And third, PentaTone's engineers deliver the sound in both stereo and multichannel, depending on your playback equipment and your personal preference. "There are thou happy."

But most of all, I think people will be happiest with Ms. Steinbacher's performances, which are perhaps not as passionate as some but certainly as heartfelt. She begins the program with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, which Mozart wrote along with all five of his violin concertos in Salzburg in 1775 when he was only nineteen years old. Mozart was more of a piano guy, so he didn't take the violin concerto very far before he died. Nevertheless, because he died relatively young, who knows what he may have done with the genre had he lived another thirty or forty years. In any case, No. 3 is fairly typical of the form, with an Allegro, an Adagio, and a closing Rondeau Allegro. It is not particularly adventurous, but it is Mozart, which means it's always charming.

Ms. Steinbacher's way with the Third Concerto is very much in the manner of Anne-Sophie Mutter's famous recording with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. This is no surprise, I suppose, given Ms. Steinbacher's past association with Ms. Mutter's Foundation. In any case, her playing is lively and attentive but sweetly flowing as well, with a nice balance in the outer movements between being too fast and furious and too slow and sentimental. In the quiet Adagio her violin tone is wonderfully lyrical and singing, reminding us of the work's strong connections to the theater.

Next up, we find the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218. Despite its similarity in classical structure to the Third, the Fourth Concerto is a bit more romantic and sinuous than the Third. The Fourth may also be more familiar than the Third to some listeners, which means listeners may have more predetermined conceptions about it. Whatever, Ms. Steinbacher's violin tone is always sparkling, the rhythms resilient and alive, the slow movements heavenly. She handles the closing movement of No. 4 in a particularly delightful manner, making it one of the lightest, most sprightly you'll find.

Finally, we get the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, sometimes called the "Turkish" concerto. Mozart claimed No. 5 his personal favorite. According to the composer's wishes, Ms. Steinbacher alternates an energetic mood with a dreamier, more gentle atmosphere. People of Mozart's day tended to think of the concluding Rondeau as being in a "Turkish" style, but if anything it sounds more Gypsy-like, and Ms. Steinbacher plays it that way.

Ms. Steinbacher's performances will not disappoint her fans nor fans of Mozart in general. And the jewel case comes packaged in a light-cardboard slipcover.

Producers Job Maarse and Hans-Christoph Mauruschat and engineers Erdo Groot and Roger de Schot recorded the album at Kirche Oberstrass, Zurich, Switzerland in September 2013, and PentaTone released it on the present hybrid two-channel/multichannel SACD in 2014. Remember that hybrid SACD's contain a regular two-channel layer playable on any standard CD player, an SACD two-channel layer playable on an SACD player (the mode to which I listened), and a multichannel SACD layer playable on an SACD player and, preferably, three-to-five or more speakers.

One of the first things that strikes the listener about the sound is the room ambience, a light but pleasant resonant bloom that sets off the sound of the relatively small ensemble. It provides a golden glow to the occasion that is quite fetching. Otherwise, the sound is somewhat close and big, warm, ultrasmooth, a little lacking in overall depth but wide across the stage and easy on the ear. The violin placement puts the soloist front and center but not too much so, and the instrument feels well integrated into the rest of the ensemble without making it the absolute center of attention.


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

Jul 27, 2014

Bach & Vasks: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Bach: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, BWV 1041 and 1042; Vasks: Violin Concerto "Distant Light." Renaud Capucon, violin and direction; Celine Frisch, continuo; Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Erato 08256 463232 2 7.

Right off, you have to ask the question, Why would French violinist Renaud Capucon choose to pair Baroque composer J.S. Bach's two solo violin concertos with a violin concerto by modern composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946)? I mean, any potential buyer of the album familiar enough with classical music to want the Vasks piece would surely already own multiple favored copies of the Bach works. And the price of the disc seems awfully high for the Vasks concerto alone.

So, let's allow Mr. Capucon to tell us in his own words why he chose the coupling he did: "A gap of almost three centuries lies between these two composers. One was born in Germany in 1685 and the other in Latvia in 1946. Their music is very different. But in both cases the music has: purity of line, apparent simplicity, celestial harmony. Little remains to be said about Bach, but a great deal remains to be said about Vasks. Bringing them together on the same album seemed natural to me. Like an echo: one responding to the other. These works have in them a search for the absolute as well as moments of Grace. This is music which brings calm, which revitalizes, which gives hope. And the most striking thing of all is the humility of these two composers in the service of beauty." Fair enough.

Anyway, Capucon begins with the familiar: Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2 BWV 1042 and the Violin Concerto No. 1 BWV 1041. Capucon takes the outer movements at what I would describe as elegantly quick tempos, with an emphasis on consistently gentle rhythms. No breakneck speeds here nor any unnecessary lallygagging. The effect is radiant and sweetly glowing, at the same time vibrant and alive. The slow inner movements are abundantly expressive, too, while occasionally lacking in the lyrical grace I've heard from a few other performers. Nevertheless, these are fine interpretations, always reminding us of Capucon's poignancy and virtuosity. If it was purity and simplicity the violinist was after, I'd say he succeeded.

One of the other delights of the program is the work of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Established in 1981 and based in London, they have quickly become one of the finest small ensembles in the world. What's more, with over 250 recordings to their credit, they have become one of the most well-known chamber orchestras around. The ensemble seems always to be at one with the soloist, whether they're actually playing along with him or not. Their accuracy and control are remarkable, their understanding of the music and its atmospheric shadings always in evidence.

Then we get the companion piece, Vasks's Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra "Distant Light," composed in 2003. We learn from a booklet note that Vasks and his family suffered a great deal because of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of his country, and that his music often reflects that experience. We also learn that fellow Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer greatly influenced him, and Vasks dedicated "Distant Light" to him. The work should evoke and underline distant memories, some of them pleasant, many of them melancholy if not downright grave.

I'm sure more educated ears than mine could hear the similarities between the Vasks and Bach concertos, but, alas, I could not. This isn't to say, however, that I didn't enjoy the Vasks concerto a good deal. With a commanding performance from Capucon, the music alternates between mostly quiet, contemplative, introspective moods and more nervous, sometimes folk-inflected states.

Producers Alain Lanceron and Michael Fine and engineer Jin Choi recorded the album at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory, Aix en Provence, France in December 2013. With this recording you get clarity above all. The ensemble is small, so it shows up with excellent definition and detail, and the violin, while a tad forward, sounds well integrated with the group. In other words, the soloist is clearly in charge sonically but not dominating. There is a modest degree of room resonance, plus a reasonable sense of depth that also help the music to appear lifelike. Overall, the sound is smooth, moderately warm, and only a trifle bright.


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

Jul 24, 2014

Davis: Sketches of Spain Revisited (CD review)

Orbert Davis, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. 3Sixteen Records CD31607.

In 1959-60 jazz great Miles Davis and arranger/composer Gil Evans made an unusual album for the day titled Sketches of Spain. Combining jazz, classical, and world music, the album confused some of Davis's fans, with many critics of the time claiming it wasn't jazz at all. Yet the recording went on to become one of the best-selling "jazz" albums of all time. Davis merely said, "It's music, and I like it." In 1995 composer Bill Russo asked contemporary trumpeter, bandleader, and currently Associate Professor of Music at the University of Illinois Orbert Davis (no relation to Miles as far as I can tell) to perform the solo part in Sketches at Chicago's Park West, something the latter Mr. Davis found a formidable challenge, especially as the earlier Mr. Davis had performed it in so commanding and semi-improvisational manner. The new sessions went well, and they inspired Orbert Davis to base Sketches of Spain Revisited on the classic original, newly adapted and orchestrated for 2014.

Miles Davis's original Sketches included five movements, of which Orbert Davis's new arrangement retains the first and the last. In between, the newer version contains three new pieces written especially for the "Revisited" Sketches. Things begin with "Concierto de Aranjuez," which Miles based on the third movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's famous guitar concerto. Rodrigo himself apparently did not care for what Miles did with his music, and, indeed, compared to the original the Miles Davis rendition does not quite measure up. For one thing, a trumpet is not a guitar and cannot convey the same moods as a guitar. However, the point is not in any comparison. What Miles did should stand on its own, which it does quite nicely. More important, what Orbert Davis does with Miles's work is equally nice. Davis's trumpet sounds out regally yet somewhat plaintively, providing an effective counterpoint to the background support. Although, as I said, a trumpet is not a guitar and does not evoke the Spanish flavor of the Rodrigo original, it does offer compensating musical nuances and shadings of its own. Fans of trumpet solos, jazz or not, should enjoy it.

Accompanying Orbert Davis on the new disc is the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, comprising about twenty musicians on flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, piccolo, trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, flugelhorn, violin, viola, cello, piano, bass, and percussion, the arrangement of instrumentation varying with the movements.

After the "Concierto de Aranjuez" we have two movements especially composed for the Sketches Revisited. The first of these new pieces is "Muerte del Matador" and the second is "El Moreno." In "Muerte" it seems as though the musicians most explicitly touch upon a characteristic Spanish style, perhaps its extensive use of guitar helping set the tone. "El Moreno" is the most dramatic selection on the program, with its driving, forward beat quite infectious in a Spanish-Moorish manner.

Following those items is another new addition, "El Albaicin," originally written by Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albeniz as a piano piece. Of all the music on the disc I enjoyed "El Albaicin" the most, perhaps because--no offense to Davis's fine trumpet work--it highlights the talents of a string quartet. "El Albaicin" is also the most classical-sounding of the numbers, albeit in a modern vein. It supplies a contrast with the trumpet items that make up the rest of the album.

Sketches of Spain Revisited ends with "Solea," a rhythmically catchy piece. In "Solea" Davis tells us he introduced elements of Spanish, African, and Middle Eastern percussion instruments, and the result is quite attractive. It makes a fitting and most easily accessible conclusion to a fascinating new alternative pop-classical jazz set.

Producers Orbert Davis and Mark Ingram, recording engineer and mixer Roger Heiss, and mastering engineer Trevor Sadler recorded the music at Tone Zone Recording, Chicago, Il; and 3Sixteen Records and Orbark Productions released the disc in 2014. There's a fairly good depth of image present and a reasonably clear midrange, too, with a minimal amount of fuzz around the edges. A wide stereo spread feels welcome, as does the clean trumpet sound. The sonics are most transparent when the ensemble is smallest, as one might expect.


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

Jul 23, 2014

Grieg: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Piano Concerto. Leif Ove Andsnes; Maris Jansons, Berlin Philharmonic. Warner Classics 0724355756220.

EMI originally released this album in 2003, and now that Warner Classics have taken over the EMI catalogue you'll also find it under the Warner label. Whichever label you buy, these are fine performances, done up in fairly good, albeit live, sound.

Anyway, the perennial pairing of the Grieg and Schumann Piano Concertos will always bring joy to the hearts of music lovers, as will the thought of hearing them performed by so estimable a combination as pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, conductor Maris Jansons, and the mighty Berlin Philharmonic. The result in both concertos is quite satisfying, if not quite reaching the pinnacles of glory enjoyed by Kovacevich/Davis (Philips), Lupu/Previn (Decca), Perrahia/Davis (Sony), or Curzon/Fjeldstad (Decca). Still, close enough.

Andsnes reveals in the Grieg a performance much like the one he recorded for Virgin some years earlier, a performance more lyrical than showy. This is fine, but it tends to make the Grieg a little less bravura, a little less grand a statement than the recordings mentioned above. Nevertheless, the pianist makes up for it with the creativity and incisiveness of his playing. He is a virtuosic pianist, and the Berlin Philharmonic under Jansons is as magnificent as ever.

I found Andsnes a tad more playful in the Schumann, rendering that earlier work a bit more fun than usual. Regardless, there's no denying the power of both works in such capable hands, and, as I say, with the excellent support of the Berlin players and some highly sympathetic conducting by Jansons, Andsnes's quick, light, rhapsodic visions come across lovingly.

EMI's sound is also rather good, some of the best these pieces have enjoyed, full and detailed, if a trifle close live. Note, too, that the bass could be stronger, especially in the Schumann, and that the piano in both works appears somewhat larger than life across the sound stage. Still, these are not big issues; if you're a connoisseur of these two piano favorites, and you haven't heard Andsnes's Berlin performance, you might want to do so.

Bottom line: If you're new to these works, you may want to consider Kovacevich as a first choice, remastered on a Philips mid-priced line of classics.


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

Jul 22, 2014

Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (CD review)

Also, Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo. Franz Welser-Most, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. BR Klassik 900124.

Oh, my. Financial constraints weigh so heavy on most big European and American orchestras these days that they often depend upon live recordings if they are to record at all. At the time of this writing I had received two such live recordings for review on the same day, this one from Franz Welser-Most and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on BR Klassik and another from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Reference Recordings Fresh! Not that there is anything particularly wrong with the sound of these recordings; it's just that I can't help thinking how much better they would have been without the presence of a breathing, wheezing, shuffling audience. Nevertheless, such are the economics of today's recordings, where it's simply too expensive to pay large groups of musicians for studio time when the ticket-buying public can essentially underwrite the productions themselves. But enough grousing; let's look at the music.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) began writing An Alpine Symphony in 1911 and completed it several years later. It would be the last of his big-scale, symphonic tone poems. He went on to spend the final thirty-odd years of his life composing other kinds of music, songs, and, of course, opera. Supposedly, the composer came to write his Alpine Symphony after viewing the Bavarian mountains behind his home, the mountains he used to climb and enjoy in his youth.

An Alpine Symphony is among the composer's most controversial works; you either love it or you hate it. Critics for years have written it off as nothing more than picture-postcard music, lightweight fluff, hammy and melodramatic and unworthy to set alongside the master's greater work. However, I wonder if these critics aren't letting their estimate of the subject matter cloud their judgment. I mean, for some people the mere description of mountains, peaks, and pastures can't seem to measure up against things with such imposing titles as Death and Transfiguration and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Be that as it may, I find An Alpine Symphony immensely entertaining, and I believe the glories of Nature are every bit as sublime and profound as anything written by Nietzsche.

Still, that's neither here nor there. If you like the music, the question is which recording you want to hear in your living room, and there's a surplus of great ones already out there with which this new one from Welser-Most must contend. For example, there are excellent accounts from Rudolf Kempe and Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Andre Previn and Vienna Philharmonic (Telarc), Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips and Newton Classics), Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), and even Georg Solti conducting the same orchestra represented here, the Bavarian Radio Symphony (Decca), among many other fine renditions. Indeed, Welser-Most himself recorded this work only several years earlier with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. So, yes, he's up against heady competition, including himself.

Anyway, An Alpine Symphony is actually not a symphony at all in the strictest sense but a long symphonic poem, describing in almost photographic detail the climb up and back down an Alpine mountain, with the titles of the movements telling the story. To give you the idea, here are a few movements: "Night," "Sunrise," "The Ascent," "Entry into the Forest," "Wandering by the Brook," "By the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "An Alpine Pasture," "On the Glacier," "Dangerous Moments," "On the Summit," "Calm Before the Storm," "Thunderstorm," "Sunset," and a return to "Night." Strauss graphically represents all of these events, and while there may be one climax too many along the way, it is all vivid enough to give one the sense of being on the mountain with the climbers and experiencing the grandeur and mysticism of the moment.

Welser-Most's way with the music is to take it rather briskly, quicker even than I remember Solti doing it. Not that this is a bad thing; Welser-Most is shaping the music to conform to his own vision of the ascent and descent and clearly sees it as a faster journey than many other conductors do. The problem is that for me this tends to rob the score of some of its grandeur and beauty.

That said, Welser-Most points up the contrasts quite well and emphasizes the work's drama nicely, so there is no end of outright thrills in the piece. "On the Summit," "Vision," and "A Thunderstorm" work out pretty well. Yet thrills can't always make up for the sheer pleasure of seeing in the mind's eye the forest, the stream, the waterfall, and the flowery meadows; and for me Welser-Most's haste in the journey took a little something away from the imagery.

One cannot say that anything is missing from the playing of the Bavarian RSO, however. They play this music as lushly, as lavishly, as richly as any orchestra around. To hear them is to get one's money's worth from the disc all by itself.

In addition to the symphonic poem, the disc offers the coupling of Strauss's Four Symphonic Interludes from the two-act opera Intermezzo, which premiered in 1924. Because Welser-Most gets through the Alpine symphonic poem a good five or six minutes quicker than most other conductors, he has plenty of room for another longer piece, the four interludes accounting for over twenty more minutes of music. Whatever, I enjoyed the conductor's approach here more than I did in the main selection, with good thrust and parry in his delivery. The sightly lighter orchestration also allows for a greater transparency, always welcome.

As I said earlier, BR Klassik recorded the music live, both selections at the Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich in 2010 (Alpine Symphony) and 2013 (Interludes). Despite the live audience, the engineers have obtained a decent sound, miking the orchestra at a moderate distance so it's not quite as in-your-face as some live recordings. What this means, though, is that you'll notice more audience noise than usual; nothing really distracting but you'll feel their presence whenever the music turns soft, which in these pieces is actually quite often. Otherwise, the sound is fairly warm and smooth, with a reasonable degree of realism in the room ambience, bloom, air, clarity, depth, and dynamics. Although in the symphony I would have liked a little more bass response, especially from the organ, and a little less room resonance, at least the engineers have edited out any final applause.

To wrap up the package, the folks at BR Klassik provide a glossy, light-cardboard slipcover for the CD jewel case. I'm not sure why they do, but it's a nice touch.


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

Jul 20, 2014

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 (SACD review)

Also, Janacek: Symphonic Suite from Jenufa. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-710SACD.

Of Dvorak's nine symphonies, it's the last three that have always been the most popular with audiences, with the final symphony, "From the New World," getting the most attention. That's probably the way it should be; people know what they like and generally pick winners. But my own favorites have long been both No. 8 and No. 9, so I always welcome new recordings of them, if only to see how they stack up against my previous favorites. This new rendering of No. 8 by Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on a live Reference Recordings Fresh! hybrid SACD stacks up pretty well.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 in 1889, and Maestro Honeck considers it the "most Czech" of all his symphonies. That is, the piece sounds cheerful and poetic, the composer keeping its style and structure in the Czech-romantic tradition and drawing his inspiration from the Bohemian folk tunes of his native country.

Honeck doesn't go at a breakneck pace through the first-movement Allegro con brio but instead varies his tempo considerably to create a fairly lively, even thrilling account of the score. There is great exuberance in the conductor's handling of the various themes, while the sounds of nature, like the birdsong of the flute, create a truly sweet atmosphere.

Dvorak marked the second movement an Adagio (in slow, leisurely time), but hardly any conductor plays it too slowly. Indeed, most conductors in my experience take it a moderate, even heady pace. But Honeck takes the composer at his word and plays most of the section at a reasonably slow speed. Not that this has any deleterious effect on the outcome, however, because he continues to introduce enough changes of tempo and dynamics within this slow structure to keep our attention from flagging. For example, Honeck lowers the volume to such an extent along about the middle of the movement that you'd think your speakers had just gone dead, which only serves to heighten the excitement when the music comes back full force.

In the third-movement Allegretto grazioso we get a kind of dumka (a Slavic folk ballad alternating between sadness and gaiety), here rendered as a vaguely melancholic waltz, which Honeck handles brilliantly. The music sounds charming and bucolic, lyric, lilting, and folksy, with a wonderfully delicate, rhythmic motion.

Finally, we get a fourth-movement Allegro con non troppo in which Honeck exercises his usual bent for flexible tempos more than ever. As he points out in a booklet note, Slavic dances tend to speed up at the end, so he slows and quickens his pace accordingly, even if the composer didn't specifically indicate such. Again, it creates an enthralling effect and makes Honeck's interpretation a little different from those we usually hear.

Still, the question remains: Does Honeck displace other contenders in this repertoire? For my taste, I continue to favor more traditional yet delightful renditions from Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), Libor Pesek (Virgin), Sir Colin Davis (Philips), Istvan Kertesz (Decca), Rafael Kubelik (DG), and a few others. However, for your own taste Honeck may be just the antidote for a score that has grown stale from hearing it so much.

Because Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is relatively short, there is time for a reasonably lengthy coupling. Here we find a symphonic suite from the opera Jenufa by Dvorak's fellow Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928). The suite comprises a twenty-two minute set of selections chosen by Maestro Honeck to represent the most-important moments of the opera. Since the opera is rather grim, expect some sorrow, gloom, and melodrama. Nevertheless, it is also quite colorful music, filled with a bit of swirling boisterousness, too, and under Honeck it makes an especially entertaining piece of music. Love that xylophone.

The production team of Soundmirror, Boston--Dirk Sobatka, Mark Donahue, John Newton, and Harold Chambers--recorded the music live at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October 2013, and Reference Recordings Live! released it on a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD in 2014. Soundmirror, with over eighty Grammy nominations and awards to their credit, obviously know a thing or two about fine recordings, and insofar as live recordings go, this one is quite good. While it is fairly close up in the manner of most live recordings, it seldom sounds bright or edgy. In fact, in the two-channel stereo mode to which I listened, it's mostly rather smooth and warm, with plenty of midrange transparency. If one didn't sense the presence of an audience through their breathing and occasional wheezing, one might think this were a studio recording. An absence of closing applause helps as well.


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

Jul 17, 2014

Kuyper: Violin Concerto in B minor (CD review)

Also, Sonata for Piano and Violin. Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin; Tamara Rumiantsev, piano; Mikel Toms, Brno Philharmonic. Feminae Records CD1401.

Serbian violinist Aleksandra Maslovaric continues her recordings of classical works by female composers, and again the decision comes as a welcome change of pace for the record industry, which seems predominately populated by male composers. Certainly, the main reason for so many males in the recording marketplace is that male composers dominate the classical repertoire; and perhaps another reason is that I've read males tend to buy more classical recordings than females. Nevertheless, Ms. Maslovaric's recordings make a welcome addition to the classical music catalogue, especially when they are recordings of composers who seldom get much attention.

Having never heard anything from the Dutch Romantic composer and conductor Elisabeth Kuyper (1877-1953) before, I wasn't sure what to expect from the concerto and sonata on the program. I'm happy to say they live up to the high standards of composer's Kuyper's professional career and violinist Maslovaric's prodigious talents.

In 1901 Kuyper was the first woman to study composition at the Meisterschule für Komposition, led by Max Bruch, where she proved quite a productive composer. In 1905 she became the first woman composer awarded the Mendelssohn Prize, after which she composed what is probably her best-known work, the Violin Concerto in B Minor we hear on the present disc. In 1908 she became the first woman appointed as a professor of Composition and Theory at the Hochschule für Musik. Unfortunately, in those days there was very little opportunity for women musicians, so she made her own way. In 1908 she formed a women's choir at the Lyceum Club, and in 1910 she formed and conducted the Berlin Women Musicians' Orchestra. In 1923, she founded the London Women's Symphony Orchestra, and in 1924 she founded the American Women's Symphony Orchestra in New York.

The album begins with the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 1 from 1902, Ms. Kuyper's very first published work. Like the concerto that follows, the sonata is clearly in the late-Romantic mold, filled with lovely melodies and sweet harmonies. The sonata comprises four movements: Allegro ma no troppo, Bolero, Andante con espressione, and Allegro energico e con fuoco. These descriptions are pretty self-explanatory, and Ms. Maslovaric plays them with great expression. She clearly has strong feelings about the music and isn't afraid to reveal them through her performance. It seems odd that people should neglect Kuyper's music these days, but I suppose her style, coming as it did at the very doorstep of the modern era, even early on sounded quaintly old-fashioned to a lot of ears. To my ears, however, the music appears attractively refreshing in its purity, simplicity, and innocence. Or maybe that's just the way Ms. Maslovaric plays it; in any case, it's quite charming.

The program continues with the Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 10, premiered in 1908. The concerto comes from the big, grand tradition of piano concertos by Bruch and Saint-Saens, yet it, too, finds little but neglect, lost perhaps in a musical world of transition. Nevertheless, powerful, personal musical statements never fully go out of style, and maybe Romanticism is making a comeback after all. (Not that it's ever been out of favor with the general public, the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still dominating the record-sales charts.)

Anyway, the concerto follows the traditional concerto form of fast-slow-fast movements, in this case an Allegro con fuoco, Adagio, and Prestissimo. While there is little that is absolutely memorable about the concerto, the writing is so felicitous and Ms. Maslovaric's musicianship so enthusiastic, it's easy to like, even when the score seems more than a little derivative. The broad sweep of the first movement, the touching melancholy of the second movement, and the cheerful jauntiness of the final movement seem to me hard to resist.

Jakko van der Heijden recorded the sonata at Zeeuwse Concertzaal, Middelburg, the Netherlands; Jaroslav Zouhar recorded the concerto at Besedni Dum, Brno, Czech Republic; and Scott Levitin mastered the album at Warner Elektra Atlantic Studios, Burbank, CA. Feminae Records released the disc in June 2014. The sound is big and warm, in the sonata the violin and piano occupying mostly the same space, one just ahead of the other. The concerto is actually a touch more transparent, the orchestra revealing a pleasant breadth, air, openness, and depth of field, the violin placed in front of but not too far in front of the orchestra in a most-realistic manner.


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

Jul 16, 2014

Lehar: Overtures and Waltzes (CD review)

Michael Jurowski, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. CPO 999 891-2.

Apart from the operetta The Merry Widow, you don't hear much of the music of Franz Lehar (1870-1948) anymore. I suppose his brand of slightly schmaltzy romanticism has long since become passé. And when an album like this one of the man's orchestral music does come along, some people no doubt compare it to Willi Boskovsky's sprightly, mid-Eighties recording for EMI. Fortunately, most of the material on conductor Michael Jurowski's 2003 release with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is different from that included on the Boskovsky disc, so Jurowski's program makes an attractive complement to the older recording.

The only partial duplication is the music from The Merry Widow, as we might expect, with Boskovsky giving us a briefer synopsis and Jurowski the longer, more complete overture. While I still prefer Boskovsky's lighter, bouncier way with things, certainly Jurowski provides plenty of energy and enthusiasm.

In addition, Jurowski gives us the waltzes Altwiener Liebeswalzer ("Old Viennese Love Waltz"), Wilde Rosen ("Wild Roses Waltz"), Adria Walzer ("Adriatic Waltz"), and the Grutzner Waltz, plus the overtures to Clo-Clo and Der Gottergatte ("Divine Spouses"). The conductor plays each of these pieces with sparkle and wit, with an orchestra that apparently knows the music well and is not ashamed to share it with the world.

CPO's big, lush sound, combined with the relatively large size of Jurowski's orchestra, appeared to me a bit overwhelming in the opening Merry Widow music, especially compared to the slightly smaller ensemble Boskovsky uses. Nevertheless, the ear adjusts. The sonics seem decently spread out across the sound stage, and they project a good deal of warmth and resonance, if rather modest depth of field. The result is reasonably natural and realistic to the concert hall, but it may not win over a lot of audiophile admirers.


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

Jul 14, 2014

Lopes-Graca: Complete Works for Violin and Piano (CD review)

Bruno Monteiro, violin; Joao Paulo Santos, piano. Naxos 9.70177.

Fernando Lopes-Graca is not exactly a household name. At least not in America. But in his native Portugal, it is a little different, where people know the composer, conductor and musicologist a little better. Still, if violinist Bruno Monteiro has anything to say about it, and if the magic of sound recordings continues to spread Lopes-Graca's music throughout the world (I count sixteen albums of his material at Amazon), maybe he will someday indeed become a household name.

According to his biography, Lopes-Graca (1906-1994) "initiated his music career at the age of fourteen as a pianist at the Cine-Teatro, Tomar. He attended the Lisbon National Conservatory, where he studied with Adriano Meira and Vianna da Motta (piano) and Tomás Borba and Luís de Freitas Branco (composition and musical science). He concluded higher studies in music composition in 1931, with the highest possible score. As a result of opposing the regime (of Portugal's ultraconservative, dictatorial, and repressive Estada Novo), he was arrested, banished to Alpiarça and denied the right to use the scholarship he had been awarded to move to and study in Paris. Nonetheless, he departed at his own expense, furthering his knowledge with Koechlin. Being the author of a vast literary work on Portuguese music, he was a pioneer in the study and research of Portuguese folk music."

Much of Lopes-Graca's music is already on disc, and now fellow Portuguese musician Bruno Monteiro brings us the composer's complete works for violin and solo piano on this Naxos CD. Monteiro himself is one of Portugal's leading violinists, performing as a recitalist, concerto soloist, and chamber musician in all the major musical centers of the country and internationally, including the U.S. (Carnegie Hall). With a number of recordings to his credit, Monteiro brings his considerable talents to bear in these violin and piano pieces, which well illustrate the composer's dedication to traditional Portuguese folk music as well as his independent spirit and his desire to promote contemporary music.

There are nine works on the disc, spanning a significant amount of time in Lopes-Graca's life, from the early Sonatinos of the 1930's to the Adagio Doloroso e Fantasia of 1988. The program gives us a pretty good idea of what the composer was up to in his musical lifetime, and both violinist Monteiro and piano accompanist Joao Paulo Santos show the composer an appropriate degree of enthusiasm.

Let me just provide a few examples of my reactions to the disc's works, starting with the early music, to give you the idea of what it's all about.

Starting the agenda is the Sonatina No. 1, Op. 10, which Lopes-Graca wrote in 1931 but didn't premiere until 1947. Maybe its conciseness (four very brief movements) and unforgiving objectivity were a bit too much for many listeners to accept, or maybe the rigidity of the conservative government's restraints put a damper on things. In any case, the piece begins with a Moderato movement that presents two contrasting themes, both a touch melancholy. The Lento non troppo that follows carries on this mood, with the violin and piano embroidering the parts. The third-movement Scherzando displays a lyrical grace, with some attractively resilient rhythms. Then, the piece ends with a moderately paced Allegro non troppo, the piano and violin exchanging pleasantries in a final, clever dialogue. Although I had never heard it before, Monteiro and Santos play it so affectionately, so enchantingly, I look forward to hearing them play it again.

Another work I look forward to listening to again is the Preludio, Capricho e Galope, Op. 33, whose title also names its three movements. As the names suggest, the music comprises a number of lilting, folk-dance melodies, though filtered through a twentieth-century sensibility (Lopes-Graca composed it in 1941). The rhythmic thrust is everywhere evident, and Monteiro's technical skills on the violin sound impressive. The closing Galope will seem particularly familiar, yet the composer and soloist invest it with a freshness all their own.

Possibly the most openly beautiful and accessible musical works on the disc are the Trois Pieces for violin and piano, Op. 118, from 1959. These are the most songlike pieces we find on the program, especially the first movement, with the violin singing the primary role. By its conclusion the melodies have gone from fairly conventional to a bit more adventurous, but the risks are worth the listen. Monteiro and Santos take us on a sensuous yet heady expedition into a kind of Romantic modernism.

The last item on the program is Lopes-Graca's Adagio doloroso e Fantasia, Op. 242, from 1988. As its title implies, it's a work expressive of great sorrow, with Monteiro's violin crying out in mournful lamentation, the piano giving support and consolation. The concluding Fantasia section is more complex, more thrusting, more contrasting, yet unexpectedly comforting, too.

Music entirely new to me doesn't always hold great appeal for me, and I often understand after hearing it just why I had never heard it or wanted to hear it before. Yet with Lopes-Graca in the capable hands of Monteiro and Santos, I found myself captivated throughout most of the album. Even if I thought some of the music a bit too repetitive or static for my taste, the exploration was well worth the trip.

Bruno Monteiro produced and Jose Fortes engineered and edited the album, recording it at Igreja da Cartuxa, Caxias, Portugal in November 2012. The instruments ring out loud and clear, the two soloists in good balance, if a tad close. The sound is always smooth and natural, never hard or edgy, thanks not only to the miking but to the very slight, warm resonant bloom imparted no doubt by the recording venue.


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

Jul 13, 2014

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 18 & 22 (SACD review)

Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano; Michael Alexander Willens, Die Kolner Akademe. BIS 2044.

After reviewing as many familiar, basic-repertoire items as I have from a variety of great artists over the course of some forty-odd years, it's hard to tell one from another anymore. Any new recording has to have something very special to offer in the way of performance or sound in order to make me sit up and take notice. This new album from pianist Ronald Brautigam with Maestro Alexander Willens and the Cologne Academy made me sit up and take notice.

Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam (b. 1954) is probably best known for his performances of Beethoven pieces on fortepiano. Here he's working with piano concertos by W.A. Mozart (1756-1791), but it's close enough, and again he's performing on the fortepiano, forerunner of the modern grand piano and a sort of evolution up from the harpsichord. It hasn't quite the rich sonority of a modern grand piano but isn't as clinky-clangy as a harpsichord. Above all, the fortepiano provides a good, clear piano sound; besides which, Mozart himself probably played the instrument, the fortepiano being used throughout most of the eighteenth century. Accompanying Mr. Brautigam is the Cologne Academy, a small ensemble of several dozen or so musicians dedicated to music of the seventeenth to twenty-first centuries and playing on both period and modern instruments, depending on the material.

Audiences are pretty familiar with both concertos on the disc. First up is the Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major, K. 456, which Mozart wrote in 1784. It's a fairly joyful work, and Brautigam plays it that way, with enthusiasm and quiet passion. Brautigam shows a light touch throughout the concerto, yet it's a lively lightness, full of sparkle and energy. He and Maestro Willens always seem to pick the right tempos, never going overboard to prove their historical accuracy yet keeping the pace vigorous at all times. Everything about the performance, in fact, appears just right.

The coupling is Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major, K. 482, written in 1785. Although only a year separates the two concertos on the program, No. 22 sounds the more mature and certainly the more weighty. No. 22 seems more inventive than No. 18 as well, with Mozart varying the overall texture of the sound more than usual. Indeed, even the soloist's entrance into the proceedings seems to have little to do with the introduction, the composer varying things so much. It's both enterprising and refreshing. More important is that neither Brautigam nor Willens tries to overemphasize Mozart's intentions, keeping everything on a even keel. Still, they preserve all of Mozart's character and color in the piece.

Mozart's father remarked that at the première of No. 22 the audience demanded a repeat of the second-movement Andante. One can understand their appreciation for the music's pathos and passion, although Brautigam never strives for any overt sentimentality here. The finale goes as expected, full of boundless good cheer as it bounces merrily along, Brautigam lending the affair a delicate virtuosity.

Producer Ingo Petry and engineer Thore Brinkmann recorded the concertos at the Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany in December 2012. I listened to the two-channel SACD stereo layer of this hybrid, two-channel/multichannel SACD and thought the sound was excellent. As usual with a BIS recording, there is plenty of room resonance to provide a realistic setting, yet not so much that it clouds the transparency of the music. The orchestra appears well spread across the sound stage, with good depth and air to the instruments. When the fortepiano enters, it shows a firm presence and a well-integrated position relative to the ensemble, not too close to the listener or too distant. Some people might prefer a sharper, more-detailed sound, but this is more reminiscent of what a person would hear live, so I'm all for it (especially when at the same time we don't have to put up with the noise of a live audience).


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

Jul 10, 2014

Overtures in Hi-Fi (CD review)

Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Adam, Herold, Reznicek, Suppe, Nicolai, Auber. Albert Wolff, Orchestre de L'Opera-Comique, Paris and Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. Decca Eloquence 480 2385 (2-disc set).

First, the only bad news: Decca made two of these recordings a few years before the widespread use of stereo. Thus, we get a couple of pieces in monaural sound, the rest in stereo. Now, the good news: All of the music sounds extremely good and is worth an audition.

Overtures in Hi-Fi is one of several two-disc sets of older material Decca are releasing on the "Eloquence" label out of Australia. This is a blessing for those of us who enjoy the Decca sound of the Fifties and Sixties and a double blessing at the more-than-reasonable price point we find the album. Now, on to the content.

Although the French maestro Albert Wolff (1884-1970) may not have been one of the most well-known conductors of his generation, he did record a number of basic items from the French repertoire for Decca, thanks largely I suppose to his work with the orchestras represented in this set, the Orchestre de L'Opera-Comique and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. The two discs include sixteen items, all of which Wolff presents with an elegant verve and excitement.

The program begins with the overtures to La Princess Jaune ("The Yellow Princess") by Camille Saint-Saens and Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz, these particular overtures being rather odd choices to start things off because they're both in mono from 1951. You see, nowhere on the front or back covers nor in the booklet itself do the folks at Decca mention the words "mono" or "stereo" at all, so unless the casual buyer looked closely at the fine print to notice that two of the selections came from the very early Fifties, the buyer would have no idea there were any items in monaural at all. Then, to be confronted with the two mono recordings right off the bat might prove a little discouraging. Fortunately, the performances are so animated, their sheer energy alone would probably win over a listener; but, still, it makes one wonder what the Decca producers were thinking. Maybe because they are the only tracks representing Wolff's work with the Orchestre de L'Opera-Comique the producers thought it would be logical to include them chronologically first. I dunno.

From here on, we get the rest of the program in stereo, with overtures to Le Corsaire, Le roi Lear, Le carnaval romain, and Les francs-juges by Berlioz and Si j'etais roi by Adolphe Adam, which brings the first disc to a rousing close. You'll find these Berlioz selections some of the most energetic and spirited versions you'll hear from anyone, with wonderfully judged tempos, rhythms, and dynamic contrasts. The set is almost worth the asking price just for these tracks alone.

Disc two opens with Ferdinand Herold's Zampa, a particular crowd pleaser, which forces the listener again to question why Decca didn't begin the proceedings with it back on disc one. Under Wolff, Zampa has almost too much energy, but that's no doubt what Herold wanted and certainly what audiences expect. Wolff's interpretation of things has all the pompous, aggressive swagger you'd expect of the opera's infamous pirate protagonist.

Next is music I've known from childhood, the overture to Donna Dianna by Emil Nikolaus Reznicek. This is because the old radio and TV program Sergeant Preston of the Yukon used it throughout their shows, and I was an ardent fan. Wolff brings back memories, and I still can't listen to the main tune without thinking of swirling snowdrifts and high adventure. "Well, King, this case is closed."

And so it goes, through Pique Dame by Franz von Suppe; Die Lustigen von Windsor by Otto Nicolai; and Le Domino noir, Masaniello, Le cheval de bronze, Fra diavolo, and Les diamants de la couronne by Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber. Of these, Fra diavolo stands out for me because of its special confidence and verve. Wolff handles it beautifully.

With 144 minutes of music on the two discs, the set surely counts as a great value, whether you appreciate the occasional mono selections or not.

Decca recorded the music at La Maison de la Mutualite, Paris between 1951 and 1957, using some of their best producers (John Culshaw, Victor Olof, and James Walker) and engineers (Kenneth Wilkinson, James Brown, Roy Wallace, and Ken Cress). Mono or not, the sound is typical early Fifties Decca, meaning it has good body, presence, definition, and dimensionality, made before the company began using 800 microphones for each recording session. There is little or no background noise when listening to these selections at a normal volume level. Turned higher, one notices a small degree of hiss. Highs sound especially well extended, even in the two mono selections. In the stereo numbers, the left-right spread is wide, the bass is powerful, and the imaging is fairly realistic. With strong dynamics and a reasonably clean transient response, the sound comes across as quite lifelike.


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

Jul 9, 2014

Rossini: Complete Overtures (CD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Philips Trio 473 967-2 (3-disc set).

When these twenty-odd overtures appeared on four separate vinyl discs between 1974 and 1980, they seemed a revelation. Neville Marriner and his comparatively small ensemble had gone back and found Rossini's original, lighter orchestrations for these works and come up with as delightful renditions as anyone had ever heard in modern times. Today, to be able to purchase all of them in a single three-CD set at far less cost than they first sold for is a bargain, indeed. And even though Philips as a company is long gone, one can still readily find the Rossini set on-line.

The program does not follow the order in which Philips first released the overtures on LP but, rather, it starts with the most popular overture, William Tell. This is a little unfortunate, as it is the famous William Tell overture that probably most benefits from the brass and bass drum that we are used to but are missing here. Not to worry, though; like the rest of the performances, the piece moves with grace and surety.

The overtures that truly sparkle, however, are Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Scala di seta, Signor Buschino (with its desk tapping), and especially my favorite, L'Italiana in Algeri. In my own experience and to my ears, only the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on modern instruments have more recently equalled these efforts for sheer energy and enthusiasm, and not even they can match the Academy for overall grace and refinement.

What's more, Philips did everything they could back then to ensure that they afforded Marriner and his players the very best analogue sound. What this means is that they eschewed some of the usual concert-hall resonance they preferred, clarifying the stereo sonics to such a degree I thought for years these recordings were among the cleanest I had ever heard. They are never dry, however, and the light ambient bloom that permeates the recordings makes the presentations sound quite realistic.

Which brings up a final point. The first of the original discs, containing the overtures recorded in 1974, Philips miked in four-channel Quadraphonics but issued in two-channel, and PentaTone Classics issued a hybrid SACD of them that appears to sound a tad clearer to me in their stereo presentation. If one is looking only for the most-popular Rossini overtures, if one has an SACD player, and if one maybe has deep pockets, the PentaTone disc is surely a strong consideration. But, otherwise, for many folks this Philips Trio offering still seems hard to resist.


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

Jul 7, 2014

Bernstein: West Side Story (SACD review)

Alexandra Silber, Cheyenne Jackson, Jessica Vosk, Kevin Vortmann, Julia Bullock. Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony. SFS Media 821936-0059-2 (2-disc set).

With music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurentis, choreography by Jerome Robbins, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and inspiration by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 and has been a staple of the American musical stage ever since. The question is how many recordings of it one needs. We already have the original Broadway and original motion-picture recordings on Sony, Bernstein's 1985 operatic studio recording on DG, a 1997 complete studio recording on Jay Records, a 2009 Broadway cast recording on Sony, and an excellent presentation from the Nashville Orchestra on Naxos, among others I've probably forgotten. Now, we have a live concert recording from Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, and a fine assembly of singers. Is it worth one's time and money? Yes. And a qualified no. Let me explain.

On the plus side, almost everything sounds pretty well cast and well sung. Soprano Alexandra Silber, a relative newcomer on the musical stage, sings Maria. Prominent singer and actor Cheyenne Jackson sings the part of Tony. Jessica Vosk is Anita, Kevin Vortmann is Riff, Juliana Hansen is Rosalia, Cassie Simone is Francisca, Louise Marie Cornillez is Conseuelo, Justin Keyes is Action, Zachary Ford is Diesel, Chris Meissner is Baby John, David Michael Laffrey is Big Deal, Louis Prado is A-rab, Kelly Markgraf is Bernardo, Michael Taylor is Officer Krupke, and Julia Bullock is the Girl. Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus sing the parts of Jets, Sharks, and Girls.

Both leads are comfortable in their roles, even if Jackson's voice didn't strike me as that of a tough street hood. He sounds like a pleasant, clean-cut, down-home young man, maybe a character from Oklahoma or The Music Man rather than a New York City delinquent in West Side Story. Anyway, it's a minor concern, and Ms. Silber's portrayal of Maria more than makes up for it. She's most persuasive, providing the production a much-needed poignancy. Indeed, she tends slightly to dominate her duets with Jackson.

The rest of the cast function well in their roles, too, especially those performers voicing the Puerto Rican contingent, who tend to get the more-colorful musical numbers in the score.

Then, it goes without saying that the San Francisco Symphony do their part admirably. OK, I admit a bias: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and remember first hearing the orchestra around 1955. So, yes, I've always thought they were good; but, really, they seem to get better with age. Today, they can hold their own with the finest ensembles in the world for richness, sonority, balance, and precision.

The qualifications? First, the production comes in an elaborate two-SACD set, enclosed in a fancy hardbound book with a 100-page insert of notes and lyrics. That may seem like a great deal, and it is, but it comes at a price: a hefty cost that may be a bit much for some listeners to bear, especially if they already have one or more of the competing releases. Second, what we get from Tilson Thomas is a concert production; that is, without dancing or dialogue. Well, doing without the dancing is fine with me on an audio recording; we couldn't see it, anyway. However, some listeners might prefer hearing the dialogue as well. Third, it's a live recording, with all the attendant sound issues that brings: see below. And fourth, not everyone will take to Tilson Thomas's fairly literal translation of things. While, as I said, the singing is quite good, there isn't to me as much spark in the production as I hear in the Broadway cast, motion-picture, and Nashville albums. Not that Tilson Thomas is exactly stiff; he just seems more attuned to refined musical elegance rather than the raw energy of the Broadway musical stage. Everything under Tilson Thomas seems too exact, too proper, too well articulated, too calculated for the character of the music. Nevertheless, the latter objection is largely a matter of taste, so other listeners will love the production for its polish.

Total playing time on the two discs is about 123 minutes, and Tilson Thomas admits they did not include every note; they omitted change-of-scene music, for instance, and, of course, the dialogue. By comparison, the movie version is 151 minutes, almost a full half hour longer.

Producer Jad Vad and engineers Roni Joles, Gus Polleck, and Jonathan Stevens made the hybrid two-channel/multichannel SACD recording at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California in June and July 2013; and SFS Media released it in 2014. In order to overcome the presence of a live audience, the miking is fairly close. Still, it provides a good deal of detail, definition, and dynamic impact, with a surprising amount of warmth as well as spacial dimensionality in the two-channel SACD layer to which I listened. The only real problem is rather small: voices do not always seem well integrated with the orchestral support. They're too far out front. Still, this arrangement also provides excellent vocal clarity, again with a welcome touch of ambient warmth. On loudest passages one notices a trace of steely edge, although it isn't much. Then, on a final note, there is very little audience noise and no applause. Thank goodness.


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

Jul 6, 2014

Mark Abel: Terrain of the Heart (CD review)

Song cycles of Mark Abel. Jamie Chamberlin and Ariel Pisturino, sopranos; Victoria Kirsch, piano. Delos DE 3438.

Wikipedia defines the "art song" as "a vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment, and usually in the classical tradition. By extension, the term 'art song' is used to refer to the genre of such songs. An art song is most often a musical setting of an independent poem or text, 'intended for the concert repertory' as part of a recital or other relatively formal social occasion."

Shortly before reviewing this disc I was talking to American composer Mark Abel (b. 1948) via e-mail, and he was saying how small the audience was for art songs these days. It got me to thinking, yes, but hasn't it always been so? I mean, the audience for classical music in general is pretty small to begin with and always has been; so the market for a niche category like the art song is inevitably smaller still. I'm sure Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, and the rest saw it the same way in their era. Admittedly, too, art songs, lieder, and the like don't do much for me personally, either, but, then, I'm not too keen on singing in general. I don't even care for much opera, so I'm no one to talk.

Anyway, Abel, who described the songs of a previous album, The Dream Gallery, as "a post-modern synthesis of classical and rock" takes his compositional creativity a step further in Terrain of the Heart with what a booklet note calls his "most extensive foray into the intimate world of the art song...a fresh look at the idiom while working within the framework through which art song is traditionally presented--as a recital vehicle for solo voice and piano." Fair enough. And, surprisingly for me, as with The Dream Gallery, I enjoyed his new album, which draws in part upon the composer's roots in pop, rock, and jazz as well as classical music.

The album contains three song cycles, the first called "The Dark-Eyed Chameleon" sung by soprano Jamie Chamberlin, accompanied by Victoria Kirsch on piano. This set contains five songs Abel wrote, each between three and eight minutes. The songs, Abel explains, are his way of sharing some of his inner self, a "release valve" serving as a way for him to deal with the pain of an especially painful breakup. The songs are a poignant reminder of life's turmoil and trauma, the kinds of things we have all experienced.

Like so much of Abel's work, we get a good deal of tortured introspection in "The Dark-Eyed Chameleon," the songs full of pathos and distress. The piano accompaniment nicely captures the mood of each piece, and Ms. Chamberlin conveys a sweet sense of anguish throughout. Some of these songs are downright heart-wrenching, so expect a sort of long day's journey into night here. Fortunately, they are quite fetching, too, "Your Girl" a particularly touching work, if perhaps a tad too sentimental for all listeners.

The second set, called "Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke," offers settings of poems by the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist of the early twentieth century. Soprano Ariel Pisturino sings the songs, again accompanied by Ms. Kirsch on piano. The poems themselves are rather puzzling at times and perplexing, so it's best just to go with Abel's sensitive musical explorations and not worry overmuch about the meaning and messages of the lyrics. Unless, of course, you're really into poetry and enjoy multiple, nuanced interpretations. The atmosphere of these songs is darker, more dour, and, depending on one's own mood at the time, more depressing than those of the first set. Ms. Pistorino's singing encapsulates the evocative soul of each piece, and Abel's piano arrangements for them are equally severe; yet the glumness also has an oddly appealing optimism about it, so it's not all doom and gloom.

The final set is "Rainbow Songs," four songs by Mr. Abel performed by Ms. Chamberlin, with Ms. Kirsch again accompanying. These are probably the most positive, colorful tunes in the collection, so it's nice to go out with them. These are also doubtless the most colorful and rhythmic songs on the program, yet one can see how they might not communicate to a mass audience. They're a bit too serious for that, a bit too intellectual, their melodies serving the words rather than trying consciously to reach top-ten trends.

I have to admit that, as I said earlier, I am not a big fan of singing (pop, jazz, art, opera, whatever) to being with, nor do I care for a lot of modern classical music in general. It seems to me that modern classical composers try too insistently not to write anything approaching pleasing harmonies or easily remembered melodies for fear of crossing over into the realm of popular music. Still, there is much to enjoy and contemplate in Abel's consciously "artsy" songs, with their thoughtful and well-considered lyrics and music. They're worth a listen.

The booklet notes contain not only information about each song but complete lyrics as well. If you're into understanding fully some of these poems, the words are helpful, even though the voices ring out in strong, precise English in any case.

Mark Abel and Carol Rosenberger produced the album and Matthew Snyder of Matthew Snyder Recordings in Burbank, California recorded it in June and September of 2013. The voice seems a bit close relative to the piano, but both voice and piano are clear and clean, with no annoying edge or brightness. It's quite a natural-sounding recording, actually, with a modest degree of reverberant room ambience to make everything seem lifelike.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa