Aug 31, 2014

D'Albert: Cinderella Suite (CD review)

Also, The Little Mermaid; Overtures. Viktorija Kaminskaite, soprano; Jun Markl, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 5.573110.

What would we do without Naxos? Certainly, we would not get to hear as many neglected eighteenth and nineteenth-century composers as the label affords us. In this case it's Eugen Francois Charles d'Albert (1864 - 1932), a Scottish-born German composer and pianist who got his early education in Scotland before moving to London in his later youth. Then, showing musical talent, d'Albert won a scholarship to study in Austria, where he stayed for a while before moving to Germany, there studying with Franz Liszt and starting a career as a concert pianist.

Apparently, he was all the rage as a virtuoso pianist, but he also produced a prodigious number of musical compositions including twenty-one operas and numerous orchestral and chamber works. On the present album, conductor Jun Markl and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra provide a variety of the man's overtures, preludes, and suites. While I can't say I fell in love with any of them--and it's probably no accident that much of the fellow's music fell into neglect--I didn't dislike any of the material, either, most of it varied and tuneful enough to maintain my interest.

Maestro Markl begins the program with three brief overtures and two preludes. All of them appear to fall squarely in the Romantic idiom, and none of them seem to me particularly memorable. As this is only the second such d'Albert collection from Markl, one assumes the conductor chose some of the best of d'Albert's music to record. If that's the case, maybe the rest of it deserves neglect. Anyway, the first selections are the Overture to Grillparzer's Esther, the Prelude to Die toten Augen ("The Dead Eyes"), the Prelude to Act II of Gernot, the Overture to Der Rubin ("The Ruby"), and the Overture to Die Abreise ("The Departure").

The music of the opening pieces offers just about every turn of phrase you can think of, most of it loud and not a little bombastic. Well, that's the nature of most overtures, in any case; composers mean for them to get and hold our attention as the curtain rises on a production. It's just that here it's the "get" that works, not really the "hold." Despite Markl's best efforts and the splendid work of the MDR Leipzig RSO, the music doesn't really reveal anything new, innovative, special, or unusual I could latch onto. The best I can say for it is that it's totally innocuous, so you won't feel as though you wasted your time on it. And, to be fair, "The Dead Eyes" Prelude has an appealing air of quiet mystery about it.

Then we come to the two centerpieces of the album: the Aschenputtel Suite ("Cinderella Suite") and Das Seejungfraulein ("The Little Mermaid") for soprano and orchestra. These were much more to my liking. Cinderella tells the familiar Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the suite having five movements that take us through the plot. Here, I enjoyed the storytelling aspect of each descriptive little tone poem, with Markl and his players well capturing the atmosphere, romance, and gentle adventure of the narrative. Well, OK, maybe Markl could have supplied a little more pomp and punch in the final wedding dance, but it's a minor issue.

D'Albert wrote "The Little Mermaid" (based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson) in 1897 for his wife at the time to sing (he married quite a few times). Here it's sung by Lithuanian soprano Viktorija Kaminskaite, whose voice justifies continued listening. It's quite lovely.

Although, as I say, I didn't find all the material on the album worth hearing more than once, there is no denying that you get enough of it. The disc contains over seventy-five minutes of music, close to the limit of a CD. For a relatively inexpensive product, you're at least getting your money's worth in playing time.

Tim Handley produced, engineered, and edited the music, which he recorded in 2011 at the MDR Studio Augustusplatz, Leipzig, Germany. The sound is fairly typical of Naxos's better work of late. It's big, bold, warm, and round, with a smooth, natural bloom from the hall. It's never forward, bright, hard, or edgy, nor is it especially transparent or ultra-clear. The sonics are rather modest, actually, providing a decent depth of field, with somewhat limited impact, dynamics, and frequency extremes. It's the kind of sound that will neither excite nor offend the audiophile but makes for easy, relaxed listening.


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

Aug 28, 2014

Ravel: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Also, Saint-Saens: Organ Symphony. Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony. Seattle Symphony Media SSM1002.

Ludovic Morlot took over the conductorship of Seattle Symphony in 2011 after a long tenure by Gerard Schwarz. By all indications, Maestro Morlot is continuing the success the symphony has enjoyed over the years since its inception in 1903. On the present program, Morlot presents several short works by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), followed by the Symphony No. 3 "Organ" by fellow French composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921).

First up is Ravel's Alborada del gracioso ("Song of a Clown"), written originally for piano 1905 and transcribed by the composer for orchestra in 1918. Morlot provides a good deal of atmosphere in the piece, drawing out Ravel's sumptuous lines and colorful Spanish flavor. He allows the music to become appropriately lively as the it moves along. It's nicely done.

Next is Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte ("Music for a dead princess"), also composed originally for piano (1899) but transcribed by the composer for orchestra in 1910. Ravel explained that he did not intend the Pavane as a mournful funeral march, despite its title, but as a refined and stately court dance, such music as a Spanish princess might have danced to. Therefore, Morlot plays it accordingly, not too slow and not too sentimental but with a simple elegance.

After that is Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, which the composer wrote for orchestra in 1908, his first such piece. The music develops in four descriptive movements: a "Prelude to Night," a traditional Malaguena," a popular "Habanera," and a concluding "Feria" or "festival." Here, Morlot creates an befitting sense of place and being, evoking the Spanish flavor of the work in each movement without overdoing his enthusiasm. All four sections come off with an emotional sophistication and a quiet imagination, with a special nod to the festive ending.

As the concluding item on the program, Morlot gives us Saint-Saens's Organ Symphony, which the composer finished in 1886 and which has been showing off church and concert-hall pipe organs ever since. Of course, it isn't really an "organ symphony" at all, as it features the organ in only two of its four movements; but close enough.

While I found almost everything about Morlot's handling of the Ravel pieces to my liking, I can't say quite the same thing about his interpretation of the Saint-Saens. The music never seems to get off the ground, remaining a mite too prosaic for my taste, at least compared to the conductors I favor: Charles Munch (RCA or JVC), Jean Martinon (EMI), Geoffrey Simon (Cala), and, best of all, Louis Fremaux (EMI or Klavier). Morlot, unfortunately, never appears to generate the same kind of energy, mood, tone, or excitement as these other musicians, nor does the recording produce the kind of bass needed to remind us of the organ's presence, even with the volume cranked up.

Dmitriy Lipay produced, engineered, and edited the album, recorded live in concert at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington in September 2013. First, a word about that "live in concert" business: Like many symphony orchestras these days, Seattle is doing their recording in-house, through their own record label and, I assume to further cut costs, live. This means that not only have they decided to record fairly close up to minimize audience noise but that one almost always senses the audience's presence. Worse, at the end of several pieces (the first and final Ravel pieces and the Saint-Saens) the audience erupts into applause, something I find quite disturbing, distracting me from my appreciation of the music. Obviously, the engineer left the applause in place to further simulate the live experience, and I realize that many home listeners enjoy this part of the show. I don't.

Anyway, the sound obtained is, as I say, a little close, certainly detailed, but somewhat hard and thin, too. There is good depth to the orchestra, and an admirably transparent midrange, with plenty of air around the instruments. There is also a distinct lack of warmth about the proceedings, though, with a slightly bright edge to the sound. Perhaps a tad more upper bass warmth would have helped, as well as more deep bass (especially in the Saint-Saens).


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

Aug 27, 2014

Bax: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also, Into the Twilight; Summer Music. David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.557144.

Where would we be without Chandos and Naxos? Well, we wouldn't have much of Sir Arnold Bax, that's for sure. The British composer (1883-1953) was at one time well represented in the catalogue by EMI and Lyrita, but today it's almost entirely Chandos and Naxos. While the former label may offer slightly better sound, it's the Naxos label that provides the bargains.

Naxos set out some years ago to record all seven of Bax's symphonies and as many of his short works as possible, most or all of them with conductor David Lloyd-Jones. So far as I can tell, Lloyd-Jones has done all of the symphonies now, and I believe he's done most of the tone poems as well.

Lloyd-Jones performs the Symphony No. 6 (1935) with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and they do it at least as well as what we heard in previous Naxos editions, meaning with plenty of Celtic atmosphere. That is what Bax is all about, of course--Celtic atmosphere. With No. 6 we get it in spades, from the mercurial opening movement with its tempestuous mood swings to the lilting slow movement and the stormy finale, which finally fades gently, tranquilly away. Bax himself claimed that the Sixth was his favorite of all the symphonies, and critics have generally agreed. What's more, while Bax shows us that he's clearly a Romantic at heart, there is yet a good deal of the modern twentieth century in there as well. There's even some Scottish folk music, a bit of jazz, and a pair of marches thrown around for good measure, so the music offers a little something for everyone. Lloyd-Jones and his Royal Scottish players capture not only the atmosphere but its many contrasts as well, the conductor always sensitive to the nuances of the music.

Personally, however, being the Philistine that I am, I prefer Bax's briefer tone poems to his longer symphonies because I think he conveys a more concentrated feeling for his subject matter in the shorter pieces. Frankly, I long ago began to tire of Bax's symphonies, as they began sounding too much alike for my taste, even though the composer seemed to shake things up well enough with No. 6 to keep my attention. Understand, I don't really dislike Bax's symphonies; it's just that I find his tone poems, such as the two contained on this disc, get more quickly to the heart of matters and, therefore, keep me more interested and intrigued. I suppose it's all a question of personal taste, and Bax may be an acquired one. Besides, to me the symphonies tend to sound like a series of tone poems strung together, anyway, not always with as much cohesion as I'd prefer. For example, although Bax breaks the Sixth Symphony into three official movements, he further divides the final movement into what are actually four distinct segments.

Whatever, the accompanying works, "Into the Twilight" and "Summer Music," are both delightfully descriptive and evocative, and Lloyd-Jones does them as well as anybody. The conductor and orchestra have an obvious affinity for Bax's music, and it's always a pleasure hearing them.

Naxos released the present disc in 2003, and their sound seems to me even better than in their previous Bax recordings. As before, it's big, bold, warm sound, the bass never actually reaching the lowest octaves but probably not needing to. There is a rich lower midrange that maybe obscures a little of what could have been greater depth and transparency, but the result makes for easy, comfortable, concert hall-style listening.


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

Aug 25, 2014

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (HQCD review)

Also, Fidelio Overture. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD374.

Quite a while ago--in the Seventies, actually--I compiled a magazine article on the favorite recordings of audiophile friends and acquaintances. I asked each of several dozen music critics, hi-fi store owners, and audiophiles to send me their lists of five-to-ten favorite LP's, and it somewhat surprised me that the final list I put together contained several references to Fritz Reiner's Beethoven Sixth for RCA. It surprised me because although I had always admired the performance, I had never thought the recording was very good. Some years later, things changed.

The first time I heard Reiner's recording of the Sixth, it was on RCA's first LP. It didn't sound good. A few years later RCA reissued it on a lower-priced LP, and it sounded even worse, this time with surface noise. Around 1990 or so, RCA released the recording on CD, and I had high hopes. Well, at least the noise had disappeared, but as I remember it still sounded rather thin and vague to me. By the late Nineties I had high hopes that RCA would remaster the recording in their "Living Stereo" CD series, but that didn't happen (or if it did, it escaped my attention). Then came JVC to the rescue in 2002 with an XRCD audiophile remaster. Finally, I could hear the performance in good, high-quality sound. The only problem was the price of the disc: very costly and out of the reach of a lot of listeners.

Now, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) has come out with their remaster, sounding almost as good as the JVC but at half or less the cost. HDTT offer a full range of physical product and digital downloads in a variety of formats from the HQCD I reviewed to FLAC, DSD 64 and 128, DXD 24 bit/352.8 kHz, 24bit/192kHz, 24bit/96kHz, CD's, DVD's, you name it. Phew! Something for everybody, and still at prices lower than the hard-to-get JVC product.

Anyway, let's look at the performance, which Reiner led in 1961. Critics often accused Reiner of being too strict with his tempos (he was certainly a strict disciplinarian when it came to leading an orchestra), but here we see no signs of that. While he keeps things moving along at a healthy clip, it's true, there's also a good deal of flexibility in his control. The first-movement Allegro, for instance, is quick and taut but unhurried, too ("ma non troppo," as Beethoven indicates). These are "cheerful impressions upon arriving in the countryside," after all, and that's the way Reiner carries it off--cheerfully.

Under Reiner the second-movement "Scene by the Brook" is properly bucolic and serene, a lovely day in the peace and quiet of rural fields, woods, and streams. When the peasants carry on their merrymaking in the third movement, they do so with a minimum of riotous rambunctiousness. This is no drunken orgy but a group of friends and neighbors enjoying one another's company in gaiety and dance. As such, Reiner holds a fairly tight rein on the rhythms, allowing them to develop and open up smoothly and naturally.

Finally, we come to the storm that briefly opens up in the afternoon and the "Shepherd's Hymn of Thanksgiving" that follows the outburst. Again, Reiner handles both extremes with elegance, power, and restraint. The storm is aptly explosive, and the hymn is pleasantly optimistic, though not exactly inspirational. Indeed, it is only in this final section that I find Reiner just a little too rigid, but his ending is nevertheless in full accordance with everything that's gone before.

For me, there have long been only three top choices in the "Pastoral Symphony": Karl Bohm's genial performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG; Bruno Walter's happily assertive rendering with the Columbia Symphony, now on Sony; and Reiner's under review. For secondary alternatives to these, one might consider the more leisurely views of Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia or Eugen Jochum and the London Symphony, both on EMI. But, really, Reiner's is as good as or better than any of them.

For a bonus (not found on the JVC disc), we get Reiner's interpretation of Beethoven's Fidelio Overture. It's a straightforward, almost austere, but surely authoritative reading. It reminds me of Reiner's handling of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: an ardent, no-holds-barred account; an old-fashioned locomotive blazing down the tracks at full steam, yet always under perfect management.

The talented RCA team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded the music in April 1961 at Chicago Symphony Hall, and HDTT transferred it to the HQCD I reviewed from an RCA 4-track tape in 2014. First I listened to the entire symphony on my primary Sony CD player. Afterwards, I put the JVC XRCD I mentioned earlier into my Yamaha machine, adjusted the two discs for the same gain, and compared the HDTT and JVC products side-by-side.

At first during the comparison, I'd swear I couldn't hear any differences. Then, as my ears became more attuned to the sound of the two discs I began hearing subtle distinctions. The HDTT seemed very slightly softer, warmer, more rounded; the JVC marginally clearer, cleaner, better focused. Further along I began to wonder if the JVC wasn't producing a wider dynamic range; it did sound a tad louder to me at certain points. So, I took a decibel meter and measured the variance between the softest and loudest passages on both discs; sure enough, the JVC did show a decibel or two more range. But these differences were so small that unless I had had the two discs playing next to one another, I would never have guessed that they weren't identical.

Again, I want to emphasize the price differential of the two albums: If you can find the JVC product, it will set you back anywhere from $50 to $150. The HDTT will cost you anywhere from $8 to $36, depending on the format you choose. That is a real difference, and the HDTT disc will sound big, full, natural, detailed, transparent, and dynamic. Sounds like a deal to me for a practically unbeatable performance. Nice cover picture, too.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at


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

Aug 24, 2014

La Valse (CD review)

Piano music of Ravel and Scriabin. Sean Chen, piano. Steinway & Sons 30029.

When musicians do solo albums they often try to tie things together with some kind of unifying theme for the subject matter. Sometimes it's as all-encompassing as a simple recital of favorite tunes, and at other times, such as here, it's narrower, more specific. In this case, pianist Sean Chen has chosen to concentrate on the period of 1900-1914 and composers Aleksandr Scriabin and Maurice Ravel. Why 1900-1914? As historian Philipp Blom notes: It was a "period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences, of enormous change in society and in the very image people had of themselves." It was also obviously a time of transition in the classical-music world, from the late-Romantic era to the early modern age, and the music of both Scriabin and Ravel reflect this major shift.

Anyway, the star of the show is American pianist Sean Chen (b. 1988), winner of the American Pianists Association's DeHaan Classical Fellowship, one of the most lucrative and significant prizes available to an American pianist; Third Prize at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first American to reach the finals since 1997; and numerous other prizes and awards. The album under review, La Valse, marks Chen's second appearance as a soloist on CD, and a very fine appearance it is.

Things begin with the Valse in A flat major, Op. 38, by the Russian composer and pianist Aleksandr Scriabin (1872-1915). Now, understand, not all of the music on the program may be to everyone's taste (these are not traditional Strauss-type waltzes, after all), but each piece is appealing and significant in its own way. Above all, one notices Chen's gentle, sensitive, yet persuasive touch with them. This first item is a good example, starting off very tenderly, full of grace and poise, then accelerating into grand passions before gradually fading back into misty silences. It's a convenient summing up of the Romantic tradition gradually shifting into the twentieth century, though resisting changes along the way.

Next, we turn to the Menuet antique by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The "antique minuet" is an intentional misnomer, of course, wherein Ravel uses the older musical form to compose something actually quite new. Chen captures the composer's swirling modern harmonies beautifully, again with a light enough touch and fluid enough refinement to accentuate the contrasts and enough full-throated energy and all-out vivacity to point up the more-exciting parts. Delightful.

And so it goes through six more selections: Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 4 in F sharp major, Op. 30, and Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; and Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn, Prelude, and La Valse. Of these, it's La Valse I'd like to single out most particularly. As you probably know, Ravel originally published the work for orchestra, where it received a successful Paris premiere in 1920. At the same time the composer prepared versions of it for solo piano and two pianos, but the arrangement Chen has chosen to perform is his own, made from several of Ravel's different scores. A very good one it is, too.

La valse is, in fact, an ideal summing up of the album's theme of change. The music begins with its feet clearly in the nineteenth century, elegant and romantic, and then slowly transforms into a demonic "dance macabre." Some critics have suggested that this change in the music's tone alludes to the destruction of societal values and civility that resulted from the horrors of World War I. In any case, Chen's arrangement and playing of the piece clarifies this purpose, and if Ravel did intend the score to exemplify a breakdown in Western society, Chen skillfully carries out this function as he transitions effortlessly from one mood to another. As he does with all of the selections on the album, he plays it extraordinarily well, with grace and virtuosity.

Producer Dan Mercurio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in September 2013. As usual with a production made at Sono Luminus, the sound is excellent. The Steinway D piano comes through with a fine transparency and solid definition, while maintaining a fairly resonant bloom. Transient response and dynamic impact are especially impressive, and while the instrument itself is just a tad close for my personal taste, one cannot deny its realistic presence.


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

Aug 21, 2014

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: Three Classic Albums (CD review)

Mozart: Horn Concertos Nos. 1-4, Clarinet Concerto, Oboe Concerto, Bassoon Concerto, Flute Concerto No. 1, Flute and Harp Concerto, and Andante for Flute and Orchestra. Various soloists; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. DG 479 3082 (3-CD set).

Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (German Gramophone Company), better known as DGG or simply DG, has been around since 1898 when German-born United States citizen Emile Berliner established it as the German branch of his Berliner Gramophone Company. I mention this because as one of the world's longest continuously active record companies, the DG folks have an extensive back catalogue of recordings. So, when they decide to rerelease some of their older material, they have a ton of great stuff from which to choose. Currently, DG are re-releasing some of their past classics in three-disc boxed sets, such the Mozart set reviewed here with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Founded in 1972, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is among the best, most popular, and most widely recorded chamber orchestras in existence, taking a rightful place alongside the English Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and other such notable groups. They have been making records for DG for over forty years and seem at home with almost any genre or period of classical music. Their membership of about thirty players draws from the New York and New England area and includes musicians who also teach at major institutions or play in other orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the New York City Ballet Orchestra, etc. The Orpheus ensemble perform without a conductor, and their soloists (as on these recordings) usually come from within their own ranks.

The first disc in the set contains Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major, K. 622, with soloist Charles Neidich; and the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 1 in D major, K. 412, and Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 4 in E flat major, K. 495, with soloist David Jolley. The standout on disc one is the opening Clarinet Concerto, with Mr. Neidich providing a superbly flowing, delightfully nuanced interpretation in perfectly judged tempos, and the Orpheus players offering him an equally accomplished accompaniment. Although I have a slight preference for Sharon Kam's recording on Berlin Classics, this would be my first alternative. For that matter, the Horn Concertos with Mr. Jolley are just as joyously infectious. Be aware, though, that competition among recordings of the Horn Concertos is pretty intense, and I'm not sure I would want these as my only choices. That said, I found a great deal of warmth and vivacious good cheer in Jolley's playing. Frankly, with a name like Jolley, how could it be any other way?

The second disc contains the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 2 in E flat major, K. 417, and the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 3 in E flat major, K. 447, with soloist William Purvis; the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in C major, K. 314, with soloist Randall Wolfgang; and the Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra in B flat major, K. 191, with soloist Frank Morelli. I'm not sure why the orchestra or DG decided to change horn players for Nos. 2 and 3, and I can't say I liked Purvis's work as well as I liked Mr. Jolley's. While Purvis's playing certainly sounds fluid and effortless, it doesn't convey quite as much joy as Jolley's. On the other hand, one can hardly fault the oboe and bassoon works. They are delightful in every way, graceful and stylish.

The third disc contains the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra No. 1 in G major, K. 313, and the Andante for Flute and Orchestra in C major, K. 315, with soloist Susan Palma; and the Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C major, K. 299, with soloists Susan Palma and Nancy Allen. Ms. Palma's flute playing is another standout in the set. Her cheerfully elegant phrasing brings out all the pleasure and happiness of these pieces. Moreover, the Orpheus ensemble accompanies her as a complementary reflection, perfectly attuned to her every note. These performances are lovely and comforting, with an especially befitting conclusion in the way of the flute and harp piece with Ms. Allen.

One could hardly find disadvantages to this set. I suppose, however, that a dedicated grinch might complain that the Orpheus ensemble's playing sounds too polished, too sophisticated for Mozart's music or that DG's sound is too slick, too smooth for the audiophile's ear. Such grousing would be stretching a point, to be sure.

The three discs in the set come packaged separately in their own cardboard foldout containers, which include album notes and cover art. A light-cardboard slipcover further encloses the three discs, along with a bonus artist postcard.

DG recorded the albums at the State University of New York at Purchase, Performing Arts Center, in
March 1987, December 1987, and December 1988, and they re-released the recording in the present set in 2014. The sound is remarkably smooth, as I say, in all of these concertos and reasonably warm, yet admitting a goodly amount of detail and sparkle. The soloists sound well centered and well incorporated into the front of the group setting, not standing ten feet in front of them. Depth perception is only moderate, but object definition is quite good.


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

Aug 20, 2014

Stamitz and Richter: Early String Symphonies (SACD review)

Simon Murphy, The Chamber Orchestra of the New Dutch Academy. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 028. 

The PentaTone people were continuing their merry way releasing hybrid stereo/multichannel Super Audio CDs even in 2003 when they released this one. The disc is dual layered and runs on any standard CD player in two-channel stereo as well as on a SACD player in 2.0 and 5.1 surround. I can't be sure, but it seems that about half the stuff PentaTone have released so far they've made new, and most of the other material they've taken from Philips, who originally recorded it in multichannel during the Seventies but didn't release that way.

Anyway, the disc reviewed here features two and three works each from the eighteenth-century composers Franz Xaver Richter (1709-1789) and Johann Stamitz (1717-1757). The works on the program carry the title Sinfonia a Quattro (in A, D, B flat, and C minor, plus an excerpt, the Andante, from Stamitz's Symphony in D major). Not that any of this is likely to be familiar to very many people. Maybe that's the idea--to present material that conductors have not worn out through repetition. Unfortunately, despite the few innovative touches we hear throughout, the music on the disc begins to sound rather alike after the first few movements. Still, that's another story, and it may be due as much to the performers involved as to the music. Or it may just be my own limited musical scope.

Whatever the case, the music is typically late Baroque, all deriving from around 1740-1750. Stamitz, a Czech composer, was one of those guys who wrote about seventy-five symphonies, most of them in the Mannheim style, where he served as concertmaster for a time. Richter, an Austro-Moravian, was a violinist, singer, composer, conductor, and music theoretician, and also at Mannheim at about the same Stamitz worked there, so you see the connection for this recording. The material will appeal to lovers of the Baroque who want and need everything they can lay ear to, as well as to listeners who want to hear the development of the early symphony as an art form.

The performances from the Dutch Academy players using period instruments under conductor Simon Murphy appear sturdy, certainly refined, technically accomplished, and fairly spirited, if not always as vigorous as say, the performances of the Philharmonia Baroque or Boston Baroque. The venue the engineers chose provides a lively acoustic, with plenty of hall reflection, a resonance that obscures some detail but tends to make the twenty-odd players of the Dutch Academy sound like a bigger ensemble than they are. More important, even in the ordinary stereo to which I listened, the sonics appear big and robust, with perhaps a touch less depth than I would have liked but otherwise flattering to the music.

Overall, though, this one is a dicey call. Neither the performances nor the sound seems like anything particularly special to me.


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

Aug 18, 2014

Cameron Carpenter: If You Could Read My Mind (CD and DVD review)

Cameron Carpenter, International Touring Organ. Sony 88883796882 (CD and DVD).

Make no mistake: American organist Cameron Carpenter has enormous talent. Earning a bachelor's and master's degree from The Juilliard School in New York, he studied with organists Gerre Hancock, Paul Jacobs, and John Weaver. There appears nothing Carpenter can't play and play well. Nevertheless, he apparently decided early on that to become a superstar in the world of organists, you had to do something more than merely play the organ well. And so he adopted a punk-rock persona, cultivated a flamboyant style, and helped design an International Touring Organ to his own specifications. The work has paid off: He's now a superstar. At least, he's a superstar among the general public, where his concerts regularly sell out and his CD's fly off the shelves. Whether he can satisfy the organ purist, however, remains open to question, and whether he will be able to maintain a lasting popularity beyond his current glamor stage we will have to wait and see. For the moment, he is definitely a sensation.

Of course, this isn't the first time a musician has purposely set out to create something new and different in the world of classics by promoting a cult of personality: Chopin, Liszt, Paganini, even Mozart had their critics who claimed their music making was more about themselves than about the music they were playing. More specifically, in the late twentieth century, organists Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs were the biggest names in the business, with Fox insisting that performers needed to take the organ out of the musty depths of church cathedrals and into the imagination of the masses, while Biggs argued that organists had an obligation to play the organ as composers for the instrument intended it be played. Fox disparaged Biggs's clinging to historical accuracy, saying Biggs and his followers were "relegating the organ to a museum piece." Both organists were enormously popular, so I suppose there's room for all tastes in the classical field.

Certainly, one needs an open musical taste to appreciate Cameron Carpenter. But heard on a CD, divorced from the man's physical appearance, one can readily hear his musical gifts and perhaps better enjoy his innovative musical style. On the present album, Cameron plays the music of over half a dozen classical and pop composers, including a composition of his own, mostly in his own arrangements and all of it played on an organ created especially for him, a digital instrument that incorporates the sounds of many of Carpenter's favorite organs and that enables him to reproduce what every organist dreams of: a symphony orchestra at his fingertips. He makes some impressive sounds.

Anyway, Cameron opens the program somewhat conventionally with his own arrangement of J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. The music becomes more elaborate as it goes along, and Cameron's way with it is, indeed, fun to hear. If I have any reservation it's that further along in the piece Cameron's instrument tends slightly to overwhelm the music compared to the unaccompanied cello for which Bach originally intended it.

Next, we have the most flamboyant music on the disc, Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide. Here, Cameron pulls out all the stops, so to speak, allowing himself full rein of the multitude of sounds his specialized Touring Organ can make. Again, though, I found myself with one minor concern: If you listen to Bernstein's own rendition of the work, you may find that even in his older years he actually put more energy and high spirits into the music (check YouTube) than Cameron does. That doesn't mean I found anything inherently wrong with Cameron's version, only that Cameron may be more musically sedate and respectful than you might expect from his appearance.

And so it goes: We get Cameron's realizations of Sergei Rachmaninov's Vocalise, Astor Piazzola's "Oblivion," Marcel Dupre's Variations sur un Noel pour grand orgue, Aleksandr Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp major, Bach's Organ Sonata No. 6 in G major, an original piece by Carpenter called Music for an Imaginary Film, and five popular-song paraphrases. Like the rest of the program, they are equally playful, amusing, serious, and enjoyable as the case may be.

Favorites? I loved the simple beauty of Rachmaninov's Vocalise and Carpenter's delicate manner of handling it. I took delight in Cameron's own Music for an Imaginary Film because, as he says, it gets the most out of the Touring Organ's "cornucopia of color." I found myself fascinated by Piazzolla's soft tango rhythms. There is exquisite beauty as well as excitement in Dupre's and Scriabin's work. And it's hard not to enjoy Bach in any form.

The pieces I liked least were Carpenter's organ transcriptions of songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Burt Bacharach, Leonard Cohen, Bob Montgomery, and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. I mean, do we really need "Back in Baby's Arms" played on a huge electronic organ? If you'll forgive an admittedly unfair comparison, it reminded me of a skating rink.

So, will Carpenter's music making wear well in the long run, or will people eventually tire of his personal eccentricities? Ask me in another ten years.

In addition to the CD of music, the case contains a forty-three minute DVD of video, with six tracks devoted to Mr. Cameron playing various short pieces, plus an introduction to the performer and a segment on the building of the International Touring Organ. A light-cardboard slipcover completes the package.

Producer Philipp Nedel and engineer Martin Kistner recorded the CD music at Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts in November-December 2013. Producer Uwe Dierks and director Thomas Grube made the DVD. On the CD the organ sounds moderately distant, with a good deal of hall resonance involved. I suppose this spacious atmosphere helps emulate the live experience, but it means that a degree of detail gets lost amid the room reflections. Fortunately, a good, solid deep bass enhances the experience, as do strong dynamics and a healthy stereo spread.


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

Aug 17, 2014

Ravel: Bolero (XRCD review)

Also, Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2; Pavane pour une infante defunte. Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQSRCD22.

I suppose everybody has a favorite recording period. Often it's the era one grew up in. For me, it is the analogue stereo years of approximately 1954-1982. Of course, digital recordings came along some time before their introduction on compact disc, but we'll leave that technicality out of the equation. Understand, I am not suggesting that I don't like most of today's digital recordings; engineers have refined the process considerably over time, and most of them sound just fine. But I don't necessarily find contemporary digital recordings any better than the analogue recordings of yesterday. Then, you add in the great conductors whom we don't seem to have replaced these days and the fact that audiophile companies like Hi-Q, FIM, and HDTT have remastered so many great recordings of my favorite period, and you get superior products in terms of both performance and sound. It's a way of having my cake and eating it, too.

Anyway, what we've got here is an XRCD24 remaster of a late-Seventies recording by Maestro Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra. Previn, too, was a part of a "Golden Era," leading the LSO from 1968-1979 in some of their finest work. It's no accident that the folks at Hi-Q have chosen to remaster yet another of Previn's LSO recordings for their catalogue.

The program begins with the ubiquitous Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The dancer Ida Rubinstein had asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces of music from composer Isaac Albéniz, but Ravel learned that orchestral arrangements of the works already existed and copyrights prevented him from doing anything more. So he decided to write a completely new piece based on the Spanish bolero dance. While on vacation he played a melody with one finger, asking his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." Initially, he called the piece "Fandango," but he soon changed its title to "Boléro." It has since become Ravel's most-famous work.

Most recordings of Bolero last between twelve and eighteen minutes. The score indicates a Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"), and the composer preferred it fairly slow and steady. In a 1931 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ravel went so far as to say the piece lasts seventeen minutes. He would even criticize conductors who took it too fast (Toscanini was a famous example, the composer and conductor butting heads over Toscanini's thirteen-minute recording) or conductors who speeded up toward the end. I mention this because Previn's recording lasts just a few seconds over seventeen minutes. By comparison to many other modern recordings, it sounds a little leisurely, but it's apparently close to what Ravel wanted. Previn is quite steady throughout the piece as well, always maintaining a sinuous gait. Not that it matters, but I think the performance would have pleased the composer.

Ravel described the suites from his ballet Daphnis et Chloe (premiered in 1912) as "symphonic fragments." Certainly, he employs a very large orchestra to convey his music, a pastoral romance-adventure relating the story of the goatherd Daphnis and his beloved Chloe. Previn brings out all of the music's sensuous nature, making it sound as beautiful as I've ever heard it.

The final piece on the program is Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte, which he originally wrote for piano in 1899 but began orchestrating in 1910 as relaxation from his work on Daphnis. Under Previn, the music (based on the slow, stately rhythms of a Renaissance court dance) is gentle, sweet, lyrical, and appropriately melancholy. Yet it never lingers long on sentimentality nor overstays its welcome by being too slow. In fact, Previn does it up as nicely as anyone.

As usual, the folks at Hi-Q provide a premium product with premium packaging: 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.

Drawbacks? Yes, naturally there are issues with all audiophile recordings, and they usually have to do with cost. In this case, the disc price is almost twice what you would pay for an ordinary CD, and the disc contains only about forty-one minutes of music. That's darned near a buck a minute, so the discs are not for everyone. Nor do they provide sound that is twice as good as an ordinary CD, whatever your definition of good sound happens to be. Yet the Hi-Q disc does offer good performances by a top-notch conductor and orchestra, and it does sound marginally better than its regular-issue counterpart. As I always tell people in these instances, if you know and like the music, already know and like the recording, have deep pockets, and an above-average stereo system, you might want to consider an upgrade to the remastered product. Otherwise, you might be better off sticking with what you've got.

Producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Suvi Raj Grubb recorded Bolero in June 1979 at London's Kingsway Hall. EMI's two Christophers--Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker--produced and engineered the Daphnis and Pavane tracks in July 1978 at Abbey Road Studio No. 1.

Hi-Q remastered the music from EMI's original analogue master tapes using JVC's XRCD 24-bit processing and K2 technology and then transferred the remastering to a standard Red Book CD that one can play on any standard CD player. Compared to the regular CD version of the recording, the XRCD displays more all-around transparency and air, more-extended highs and lows, and a slightly greater sense of impact and transient quickness. There's an excellent sense of depth, too, the added clarity of the XRCD processing making it more obvious than on the regular-issue CD. In other words, yes, the extra money does buy you better sound; not night-and-day better sound but definitely clearer, more-dynamic sound. It's sound probably closer to that of the master tape than found on the regular CD. But, as I say, whether small improvements are worth the money depends on the buyer's priorities.

You can find Hi-Q products at any number of on-line marketplaces, but you'll find some of the best prices at Elusive Disc:


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

Aug 14, 2014

Beethoven: Pianos Concertos 3 & 4 (CD review)

Maria Joao Pires, piano; Daniel Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Onyx 4125.

In the booklet notes to her album of Beethoven piano concertos, the celebrated Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires poses an interesting question about the function of the artist. She says "The role of interpreter is a delicate one: he, or she, is faced with the score as the sole point of contact with the composer. It is the interpreter's job to bring a work to life, across distances in time and space, by making a connection between a personality--often an exceptional one--and ordinary mortals. To achieve this he has to put mind and body at the service of a considerable task: the transmission of art. In music, the word 'interpretation' is prone to a number of misconceptions, frequently with unfortunate consequences. Thus, we often see two positions set against each other: either the performer must 'project himself' in order to give life to the score (to 'show personality,' at the risk of betraying the spirit of the work; or, on the contrary, he must show the score the utmost respect, so trying to suppress his own personality to give a reading of the work which may well be perfect--but lifeless."

"Logically speaking," she continues, "one might think that the correct approach would be halfway between these extremes, but such logic would be crude compared to the subtlety of the question. Indeed, these two approaches both fall prey to the same fallacy, through the disproportionate importance they attach to personality. Whether through excess or shortage of personality, this concept gets in the way of music's essential power to bring out a primal simplicity, so often forgotten, which is present deep inside each one of us, waiting to respond when summoned."

I love the question: How much of an artist's own personality should he or she impose upon the music so that it doesn't sound like just another rote, mechanical, routine performance. Although Ms. Pires's answer to her own question is somewhat vague, I think we all get the idea. The interpreter must show technical skill, virtuosity if you will, in shaping the music to his or her own taste and yet always with an educated guess at the composer's intent, always with the music foremost. Otherwise, you get performers who either beg to call attention to themselves through their eccentricities -- "Aren't I wonderful, am I not great?" -- or merely produce dull run-throughs.

Ms. Pires produces anything but dull run-throughs of these concertos, yet she never imposes any dominating idiosyncrasies of her own onto the music. That is, unless you count her generally warm, sweet, gentle style a personal quirk. I don't. To me, she makes the music come alive by submerging herself into it, all the while bringing out its intrinsic beauty. Ms. Pires is a virtuoso performer with an obvious love for her subject matter and a desire to make the most of it. What's more, Maestro Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra appear completely in accord with Ms. Pires's wishes, supporting her piano passages with a sympathetic accompaniment.

The first item Ms. Pires plays is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, which the composer wrote around 1800 and first published in 1804, premiering the work himself. No. 3 is not quite the precursor of the full-blown Romantic concertos we get in Nos. 4 and 5 but more like a later Mozart classical concerto. After a moderately lengthy orchestral introduction that sets the tone for a somewhat agitated opening Allegro con brio, Ms. Pires enters with the first of her lucid, clearheaded solo work. Even though we might have all heard this movement performed more quickly and perhaps with greater urgency, Ms. Pires's interpretation is one of simple clarity and spontaneity. She doesn't create the music's excitement; she simply delivers it.

And so it goes throughout the concerto. Ms. Pires lovingly caresses the central Largo and then provides an appropriate gusto for the closing Rondo: Allegro. It's not an earthshaking performance, but it matches almost anyone's for color, variety, and sheer joy.

The second number Ms. Pires plays is the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58, which Beethoven composed between 1805 and 1806, premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself again as soloist. The piece begins with a piano solo, amiably handled by Ms. Pires. Unlike No. 3, which exhibited a good deal of youthful enthusiasm, the opening movement of No. 4 is more peaceful, more untroubled, and that's fully the impression Ms. Pires conveys. Her solo work is as tranquil as any you're likely to hear. Even when the orchestra joins in, the mood remains serene, with an elegance of line and texture close to ideal.

The second and third movements sound equally involving, Ms. Pires making her point about the performer not indulging in meaningless self-promotion but devoting herself entirely to the service of the music. She is a thoughtful, alert artist who provides a moving experience in both of these concertos.

Producer John Fraser and balance engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the concertos at Berwaldhalle, Stockholm in October 2013. The sound exhibits a modest sense of orchestral depth and, more important, strong dynamic contrasts and impact. There is a realistic stereo spread across the sound stage, a slight forwardness to the upper midrange, and a pleasant ambient glow to the instruments. The engineers capture a nicely balanced piano sound, too, not too close or too distant, but clear and lifelike.


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

Aug 13, 2014

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (CD review)

Also, "Creatures of Prometheus" and "Coriolan" Overtures; "Egmont" Overture and Incidental Music. Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 67966-2.

It's been over a decade now since EMI (now Warner Classics) last reissued Maestro Otto Klemperer's 1957 performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 on CD, and it was appropriate that they released it in their "Great Recordings of the Century" line. Certainly, it's one of the great performances of the twentieth century.

I believe this was the recording's third, fourth, or fifth CD incarnation (depending on how you count the complete Beethoven sets), my reservations about its earlier CD rendering being in regard to its sound. It was somewhat thin, harsh, and noisy. By comparison, the 20-bit remastering released in 1998 as part of EMI's "Klemperer Legacy" series was smoother, fuller, and relatively quieter. Nonetheless, it retained a good deal of the original disc's clarity, sounding more transparent than most new releases. This 2003 remastering appears to me the same as the "Klemperer Legacy" one, so I can recommend it without hesitation.

The earlier disc's coupling, the conductor's reading of the Beethoven First Symphony, was not nearly so characterful as his Sixth, being a bit too massive for my taste to convey all of the work's good cheer, so it's good to see that EMI replaced it here with several overtures: The Creatures of Prometheus and the Coriolan, plus the overture and some incidental music to Egmont, all recorded the same year as the Sixth, 1957, a very good year, indeed.

But it's for the Sixth that people will probably want to buy this disc. I remember reading somewhere that when Klemperer's producer, Walter Legge, asked Klemperer if he didn't think he was taking the Scherzo a little too slowly, Klemperer replied, "Don't worry, Walter; you will get used to it." Well, we've had over fifty years to get used to it, and I suspect by now it has pretty much grown on us. Steady but firm is the key here.

Klemperer's performance continues to be one of the most relaxed, leisurely, bucolic, and wholly charming interpretations ever put to disc, which may seem a contradiction of everything we've come to think about the conductor, largely known for his monumental, granitelike readings. The performance of the Sixth has not and will doubtless never find favor among the Toscanini crowd, but it has delighted most everyone else since Klemperer recorded it.

In the first movement, "The Arrival in the Country," Klemperer takes things very deliberately, very purposefully, its repetitions made more weighty through its unhurried pace, yet never dragging, never feeling lugubrious. The second movement, "The Scene at the Brook," flows naturally and smoothly, maintaining the easygoing nature of the setting. Then comes Klemperer's famous third movement, usually a quick and boisterous Allegro representing peasant merrymaking, but here taken as though the peasants were more than tipsy when the Scherzo starts, rather lumbering stably along. The storm that follows is weightily structured in big, bold outlines, flowing effortlessly into the highlight of the piece, one of the most joyous "Shepherd's Hymn" in any Sixth around.

This is no namby-pamby performance but one with a clear and assertive vision of pastoral life. Along with three or four other conductors, Klemperer leads the field in Beethoven Sixths. For the curious, the other recordings I would place on my list of outstanding Sixths are those of Karl Bohm (DG), Fritz Reiner (especially in its JVC and HDTT remasterings), Eugen Jochum (EMI), and, of course, Bruno Walter (Sony). This is an old, exclusive, and distinguished group of master musicians, among whom Klemperer still stands tall.


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

Aug 11, 2014

Soiree: Music of Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and Liszt (CD review)

Susan Merdinger, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

As you may know, pianist Susan Merdinger is a Steinway Artist, receiving her formal education at Yale University, the Yale School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, the Westchester Conservatory of Music, and the Ecole Normale de Musique, Fontainebleau, France. Having formerly taught at Yale University, Westchester Day School, and the New Music School of Chicago, Ms. Merdinger is currently on the faculties of Summit Music Festival in New York, Burgos International Music Festival in Spain, and the Fine Arts Music Society Festival in Indiana. She is also Artistic Director of the Sheridan Music Studio in Highland Park, Illinois, a private music studio and record label. A recipient of numerous scholarships and awards, Ms. Merdinger has been performing internationally to great acclaim for several decades. On the present album, Soiree, she performs various selections from Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and Liszt.

The first item Ms. Merdinger plays on the program is the Sonata in B major, D.575 by that most felicitous of composers, Austrian Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Although Schubert wrote it early on, in 1817, the piece didn't see publication until after his death. It's a good example of his forward-looking style, a relatively brief, happy, lyrical work, slightly predating the full blooming of the nineteenth-century Romantic movement. Although it took a while for audiences finally to hear Schubert's music, we can count it worthwhile. In this early piece there are the clear indications of lyricism, melody, harmony, and ultimate elegance that marked all of the composer's work. Ms. Merdinger plays it wonderfully well, gracing every note with care, never hurrying yet never lagging, either; never seriously clinical yet never sentimentalizing. The music has weight and substance through thoughtful nuance and obvious affection. This stands out most clearly in the Andante section, which could easily stand on its own.

Next, we have two rhapsodies by German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): the Rhapsody in B minor and the Rhapsody in G minor, Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 79, written in 1879. Ms. Merdinger says in a booklet note that Brahms's music "represents a personal outpouring of religious faith, love, joy, contemplation, sadness and melancholic grief." Certainly, Ms. Merdinger's performances of the Rhapsodies bring out these qualities, with an emphasis perhaps on the combination of joy and melancholy in these extravagantly complex, richly drawn pieces.

After that, we find three works by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Pagodes, La Soiree dans Grenada ("Evening in Grenada"), and Jardins sous la Pluie ("Gardens in the Rain"). In Pagodes, Debussy strove to give the impression of an exotic location, in this case through Javanese gamelan music and a suggestion of the five-tone scale of Javanese music. La Soiree captures another exotic location, using the rhythms of the Caribbean. Jardins is fairly self-explanatory, Debussy capturing the various sounds of raindrops during a storm and its aftermath. Here, Ms. Merdinger excels in reproducing the haunting passages Debussy so carefully engineered. The composer's idea is for the listener not only to see in the mind's the images he's depicting but, more important, to feel them through the atmosphere he's creating. That's where the pianist does her job most effectively, building up the moods of the music. In La Soiree, especially, she seems to be playing two separate pianos at once, her tones are so luxuriant.

Ms. Merdinger concludes the album with two works by Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886): the Concert Paraphrase on Verdi's "Rigoletto" and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor. In these final Liszt numbers, Ms. Merdinger again demonstrates her ability to convey both raw power and emotion with subtlety and refinement. In the Verdi paraphrase we actually hear the voices of the opera, and in the Rhapsody we experience the full impact of the folk-like tunes and dances as the pianist signs off in a blaze of glory.

Ms. Merdinger is a pianist who would rather show than tell you things with her piano playing, so expect an abundantly diverse display of passion, pleasure, reflection, and beauty from her performances.

Recording engineers Tim Martyn and David Schoenberg and recording engineer, editor, and mastering engineer Ed Ingold made the recording in 2014 for Sheridan Music Studio. The piano rings out with clarity and authority. There is a mild resonance that reinforces the notion that the piano is in the room with you. Yet the modest reflections do nothing to interfere with the transparency of the piano sound. Strong dynamic contrasts and a generous decay time also help to make the recording as lifelike as possible. The sound has the kind of reach-out-and-touch-it quality I'm sure we'd all like to hear from every recording.

Ms. Merdinger has made the album available as a digital download and on a physical disc at various locations, including her own Web site:


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

Aug 10, 2014

Nine Notes That Shook the World (CD and Blu-ray review)

Ronn McFarlane, Renaissance and Baroque lutes; Mindy Rosenfeld, Renaissance, Baroque, and Celtic flutes, fifes, harp, and bagpipe. Sono Luminus DSL-92169 (CD and Blu-ray)

Lutes and flutes.

Lutes and flutes provide the perfect instruments for this collection of Renaissance and Baroque folk and classical music, presented on a standard CD and a Blu-ray disc.

First, a word about the title, which goes without comment in the booklet and packaging. I can only assume it is a take on American journalist and socialist John Reed's book, Ten Days That Shook the World, about the 1917 October Uprising in Russia. Beyond that, the album's reference is rather vague, but it's a cool title, anyway.

The music derives from the early sixteenth to late-eighteenth centuries. The composers include the familiar: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764), and John Dowland (1563-1626); the less familiar: John Adson (c.1587-1640), Michael Blavet (1700-1768), Adrian Le Roy (c.1520-1598), James Oswald (c.1711-1769), Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755), Robert Ballard (c.1752--after 1650), Cesare Negri, and Fabritio Caroso da Sermoneta; plus a few traditional and anonymous acknowledgements.

The recording artists are Ronn McFarlane playing Renaissance and Baroque lutes; and Mindy Rosenfeld playing Renaissance, Baroque, and Celtic flutes, fifes, harp, and bagpipe. Ms. Rosenfeld writes that "Ronn and I have been musical colleagues since we met in Baltimore in our early twenties at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, playing together in the Baltimore Consort, and in the trio 'Gut, Wind and Wine" with our friend, Mark Cudek. Performing together as a duo is a more recent incarnation of our musical connection."

Mr. McFarlane is an American lutenist and composer. He was a founding member of the Baltimore Consort; began a touring career in the United States, Canada, and Europe, both with the Baltimore Consort and as a soloist; became noted as an interpreter of Renaissance music; served on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory teaching lute; received an honorary Doctorate of Music from the Shenandoah Conservatory; and began composing music for the lute and working with a new ensemble called Ayreheart. Ms. Rosenfeld is an American flutist, piper, and harpist who specializes in Renaissance music. She co-founded the Baltimore Consort, in 1989 became a member of San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and is currently the Principal Flutist and soloist with the Symphony of the Redwoods and the Mendocino Music Festival in California.

About the music, Ms. Rosenfeld further writes that "This recording is a gathering of some of our favorites, a musical feast. A wide cross-section of styles both 'folk and fyne,' evocative and expressive of the variety and intensity of human feelings, from sparky, joyful fun to deeper meditative inner reflection, these timeless tunes from past centuries still touch us in ways words cannot, stirring our life energy."

McFarlane and Rosenfeld are consummate artists, and their experience allows them to blend their various instruments in ideal harmony and execution. Most of the tunes they play are soft, sweet, and gentle, yet their choice of songs, dances, and instruments are diverse enough to provide a wide range of moods and emotions. The performers seem keenly aware of one another's style and provide a variety of nuances in their playing, enough to keep even this listener, ordinarily only mildly interested in Renaissance music, entertained.

While I surely enjoyed the folk and traditional melodies they play on the program, I probably got the most pleasure from Handel's Sonata in G Major. McFarlane and Rosenfeld infuse it with wit, charm, serenity, and good cheer. Yet for that matter, their playing of assorted Scottish, Irish, and English airs and dance tunes also delighted me no end. Heck, the whole thing was fun, and the closing bagpipe number is a kick.

The performers fill out the album with over seventy-five minutes of music, very nearly the limit of a CD and certainly good value. A Blu-ray disc, of course, has far more room on it than a compact disc, so because you get to choose among three different BD formats, it offers extra worth.

Producer and editing engineer Dan Mecurio and recording, editing, mixing, and mastering engineer Daniel Shores made the album in October 2012 at the studios of award-winning Sono Luminus in Boyce, Virginia. Audiophiles know Sono Luminus for their "less-is-more" recording philosophy, producing some of the most natural-sounding discs around. Nine Notes That Shook the World is no exception.

The package contains both a standard CD in two-channel stereo and a Blu-ray disc with DTS HD MA 5.1 multichannel (24/192kHz), DTS HD MA 7.1 multichannel (24/96kHz), and LPCM 2.0 stereo (24/192kHz). Although I have a 7.1-channel playback system in my home-theater room, it doesn't use speakers as good as those in my main music-listening room, so I opted to listen mainly to the standard CD.

In any case, here's another of those "reach-out-and-touch-it" affairs that sounds so real you'd think the performers were with you in your listening room. A modest resonance complements the realism of the occasion, the miking putting the players at a distance that appears just beyond the loudspeakers. Clarity, definition, and detail are exemplary, all while maintaining the smooth, warm sound of the instruments.

Just for the heck of it, though, I did spend some time with the Blu-ray disc, where I thought the DTS 5.1 sounded best, providing the better combination of transparency and ambient surround space.


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

Aug 7, 2014

Shades of Gray (CD review)

Gary Gray, clarinet and alto sax; various accompanists. Centaur CRC 3251.

Shades of Gray is a mixture of jazz and classical, with the emphasis either on jazz-inflected classical or on classical-inflected jazz, depending on how you look at these things.

In any case, the star is clarinetist Gary Gray, a top-notch performer with a number of albums to his credit, a concert artist, studio musician, and Professor of Clarinet and Chair of Woodwind Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. His idea for the present recording was to create, in his words, "an album of duos, utilizing the clarinet going one-on-one with a variety of instruments," offering "fresh possibilities...especially if some duos with a jazz accent were to be included in the program."

The album contains seven main selections and two bonus tracks, the nine items being a mixture of classical and jazz, as I say. For me, the best of the lot were two numbers by George Gershwin, the Three Preludes (1927) that open the disc and Rhapsody in Blue, which almost concludes things (just before the bonus tracks). On both the Preludes and the Rhapsody, pianist Bill Cunliffe accompanies Gray. I found these numbers particularly effective not only because of the highly sophisticated music but because Gray plays such a sultry, emotional, bluesy, sensuous clarinet. Nevertheless, although I enjoyed his Rhapsody and Cunliffe's sympathetic support, I couldn't help wondering how much more I would have enjoyed Gray playing with a full Gershwin-style ensemble in one of its original arrangements. Still, for what the music is, Gray and Cunliffe do it splendidly, and I doubt anyone hearing it would complain.

In addition, we get "Three Short Stories" for clarinet and bassoon (2003) by Gernot Wolfgang, with Judith Farmer, bassoon. Wolfgang's work mixes jazz with Latin American influences and has an especially light, graceful rhythm to it.

The "Twilight" section from "Hall of Mirrors" (1990) follows, for clarinet & piano by Mark Carlson, with Joanne Pearce Martin, piano. "Twilight" is the third movement of a sonata Carlson wrote for Gray. It's sweet, poignant, and a little melancholy, moods Gray and Martin capture perfectly.

Charles Harold Bernstein's "Blending," in five movements for clarinet and violin (1989) with Adam Korniszewski on violin, is the longest piece on the program at a little over twelve minutes and was also written specifically for Gray. It's a great title for the blending of piano and violin we hear, and Gray and Korniszewski match instruments and skills in ideal harmony.

"Yin and Yang" for clarinet and alto saxophone (2010) by Bill Cunliffe, with Gary Foster, alto sax comes next. It's the "canon" movement of a longer suite that Gray says he will continue on some future album. More important, it's a snazzy, jazzy dialogue between the two reed instruments, and it sparkles in its simplicity.

Then we get "Blue Muse" (2003), arranged for clarinet and guitar by Kenny Burrell, who accompanies on guitar. "Blue Muse" is surely a classic already, or should be, and in this rendition it sounds mellow and sonorous.

The first bonus item is "Lush Life" (1938) by Billy Strayhorn, arranged by Bill Cunliffe for spoken voice, piano, and saxophone, with Juliette Gray, voice; Bill Cunliffe, piano; and Gary Gray, tenor sax. The only trio on the program, "Lush Life" offers a satisfyingly pensive sadness in the voice-over. Lovely.

The final bonus item is "Wave" (1970) by Antonio Carlos Jobim, an improvisation for piano and saxophone with Vince Maggio on piano and Gray on alto sax. It proves a satisfactory summing up of the duets on the album.

Gray recorded the nine selections on the disc over the period 1983-2011. The album notes provide no exact recording dates or venues, but I suspect Gray made the bonus items early on and the rest of the items at the later date. In any case, for the most part the instruments display an excellent sense of space and place because the mikes aren't right on top of them. So, set slightly back, they sound as one might hear them live in a small club. They also sound well defined, with a touch of room resonance to give them a realistic texture and flavor. In addition, the duos are lifelike in their size, not stretching across the room but equally balanced, smooth, and detailed, with fine dynamics from softest to loudest passages. Wonderful sound, actually.


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

Aug 6, 2014

Gilbert and Sullivan: H.M.S. Pinafore (CD review)

John Reed, Jeffrey Skitch, Thomas Round, Donald Adams, Jean Hindmarsh, Gillian Knight; Isidore Godfrey, New Symphony Orchestra of London and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Decca 473 638-2 (2-disc set).

The folks at Decca reissued their famous D'Oyly Carte series of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas in 2003, and this time they included the original cover art and record labels. The sound in all of them is better than ever, the looks are better than ever, and no one has ever equalled the performances. The recordings include the complete operas and, as far as I can see, the dialogue.

Decca's recording of H.M.S. Pinafore, recorded in 1959, has long been one of my Desert Island favorites, so I found myself more than delighted to listen to it again and again. The performance conveys all of the humorous, deadpan zest this music requires, with singer-actors born to the roles. It is, of course, the story of a poor seaman who falls in love with a Captain's daughter, but they cannot marry because he is low born and she is of the upper classes. The plot allowed the Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan to poke fun at the British aristocratic caste system of the late nineteenth century as well as lampoon certain character types.

Thomas Round is ideal as the fresh-faced Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw; John Reed as the pompous Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty; Jean Hindmarsh as Josephine, the Captain's daughter; Jeffrey Skitch as Captain Corcoran, the commander of the Pinafore; Gillian Knight as Little Buttercup, a "Bumboat Woman"; and Donald Adams as the villainous Dick Deadeye. They and the rest of the cast are a pleasure all the way around, as are Isidore Godfrey's conducting (he was the musical director of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the time), the New Symphony Orchestra playing, and the performances of the rest of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and Chorus. They produce some of the best Gilbert and Sullivan you'll find anywhere at any price.

The sound is still excellent by any standards, too, and remains one of my audiophile choices. Moreover, with this rerelease the Decca engineers appear to have remastered the sonics to even smoother effect. High notes and voice sibilants do not seem as hard-edged as in the earlier, 1989 CD's but closer to what I remember from the old vinyl LP days. Add in a more-flowing treble, a magnificently realistic bass, a wonderfully transparent midrange, and plenty of stage dimensionality, and you get a formidable package. And since this is a vintage Decca operetta, expect to hear the characters' voices and bodies actually moving around the stage. This is no mere vocal recital, but a complete performance with depth and breadth.

Other recordings in Decca's reissued Gilbert and Sullivan series include The Gondoliers (473 632), The Grand Duke and Henry VIII incidental music (473 635), Iolanthe (473 641), Patience (473 647), Princess Ida and Pineapple Poll (473 653), Ruddigore (473 656), The Sorcerer and The Zoo (473 659), Utopia Limited, the Macbeth overture, and Victoria and Merrie England (473 662), and The Yeoman of the Guard and Trial by Jury (473 665); plus, everyone's other favorites, The Mikado (473 644) and The Pirates of Penzance (473 650). These are splendid sets, released as mid-price bargains and hard to resist.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa