Sep 29, 2014

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 (CD review)

With an assortment of cadenzas. Jerome Lowenthal, piano; Carl Topilow, unnamed orchestra. LP Classics 1008 A/B (2-disc set).

My Random House Dictionary defines a cadenza as "an elaborate flourish or showy solo passage, sometimes improvised, introduced near the end of an aria or a movement of a concerto." I mention this at the outset because that's the idea behind this recording of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. That is, Beethoven wrote cadenzas for the first and third movements of the concerto, and since Beethoven's time other composers have offered their own. On the present album pianist Jerome Lowenthal has gathered together twenty such cadenzas by eleven different composers and presents them along with the concerto itself on two compact discs. The idea is to hear, compare, and enjoy these various cadenzas from the nineteenth century to our own. It does, indeed, make for fascinating listening, especially in the capable hands of Mr. Lowenthal.

For the benefit of those of you who may not know Mr. Lowenthal, his Wikipedia page describes him as an American classical pianist, a member of the piano faculty at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was also chair of the piano department. Additionally, Lowenthal is on the faculty at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. He made his debut at thirteen with the Philadelphia Orchestra; then, returning to the United States from Jerusalem in 1963, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, playing Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2. Since then, he has performed with such conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yuri Temirkanov, Leonard Slatkin, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Pierre Monteux, and Leopold Stokowski. He has played sonatas with Itzhak Perlman, piano duos with Ronit Amir, his late wife, and Ursula Oppens, as well as quintets with the Lark Quartet, Avalon Quartet, and Shanghai Quartet.
His studies included lessons with Olga Samaroff in Philadelphia, William Kapell and Eduard Steuermann at the Juilliard School in New York, and Alfred Cortot at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He was a prizewinner at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels (1960) and the Busoni Competition, and he is frequently a judge in international piano competitions.

So, here's what we have on the two CD's under review. Disc one contains the piano concerto itself plus two cadenzas by Beethoven, first and third movements; then first and third-movement cadenzas by Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein, Hans Von Bulow, Johannes Brahms, and Camille Saint-Saens. Disc two contains the concerto again, this time with first and third-movement cadenzas by Frederic Rzewski, Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Ernst Von Dohnanyi, and Nicolai Medtner.

As for the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote it between 1805 and 1806, premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself as soloist. For most of us, it's the concerto on the album that matters and how Mr. Lowenthal plays it because if he doesn't do it justice, none of the following cadenzas would make much difference. Fortunately, Lowenthal does do the piece and the ensuing cadenzas justice.

The concerto begins with a brief piano solo, projected with authority by Mr. Lowenthal. He handles the solo part with authority, and the orchestra provides a gentle, restrained accompaniment. But it's really Lowenthal's presence one needs to consider. He displays a complete mastery of the piano while offering an unmannered performance. You won't find any histrionics here, nothing that would set his playing apart as eccentric or showy. It is a charming realization of Beethoven, virtuosic yet reserved. As an interpretation, Lowenthal's reading may lack some color, but that isn't the point. He is not trying to impose his own personality on the music but let it speak for itself. In particular, he is trying to show and compare the various cadenzas, which requires him to be as objective as possible. So, yes, his is a fine, honest realization of the work.

Now, about those cadenzas. The first of these are by Clara Schumann. They seem steeped in high Romanticism, yet they are fairly plain and graceful, too. Although Beethoven left instructions that the third-movement cadenza be short, Schumann's is relatively lengthy (only Rubinstein's is longer). Whatever, it tends to repeat earlier material from the concerto, giving it a more unifying quality than most such cadenzas. Her pieces are quite charming.

Anton Rubinstein was among the more-controversial pianists of the nineteenth century, loved by most listeners, hated by others. His cadenzas reflect this attitude, being some of the most forceful in the collection, his third-movement cadenza seeming to go on forever.

Hans von Bulow was a contemporary of Rubinstein and an equally gifted composer-pianist who left definite, and sometimes contradictory, impressions on his listeners. Understandably, his cadenzas are also strongly enlivening.

Then there's Brahms. These cadenzas sound as though they belong in one of Brahms's own concertos yet have a sweet, touching quality about them, too. The third-movement cadenza is brief and to the point; Beethoven would surely have approved.

Disc one ends with cadenzas from Camille Saint-Saens. They seem almost impressionistic by comparison to the previous cadenzas on the album. Still, they are lovely, and Lowenthal plays them lovingly.

For the main performance of the concerto on disc two, Lowenthal gives us a new first-movement cadenza by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) that he wrote just for Lowenthal. However, Rzewski requested that Lowenthal play it with improvisation and spontaneity. Lowenthal says he complied, and while it's as effective a cadenza as any, it clearly betrays its modern origins in its less melodious, slightly more discordant structure. I think it works better on its own than integrated into the Beethoven work.

Ferruccio Busoni won first prize in a competition with, among other things, his Beethoven cadenzas, and they helped launch his career. They are among the more vibrant of the cadenzas on the program.

Leopold Godowsky was another important pianist-composer of the early twentieth century, and his cadenzas struck me as being rather ornate, well embroidered as it were. They are a little more showy than the others, perhaps because Godowski himself enjoyed impressing his audience with his own skills.

Finally, we get the cadenzas of Ernst von Dohnanyi and Nicolai Medtner, both composer-pianists of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Of the two, Dohnanyi appears more to adhere to Beethoven's original ideas and Medtner to stray off to his own ground. Lowenthal admits that Medtner's cadenzas are his favorites, and while I cannot entirely agree with him, certainly Lowenthal gives them a worthy showing in bravura style and refinement.

Producer/editor Alan Bise and engineer Bruce Egre made the recording in Cleveland, Ohio in 2007, and LP Classics released it in 2014. The sound comes across beautifully balanced, not only left and right but among the instruments, with no frequencies standing out or recessed and the piano realistically centered, neither too close nor too distant. Smooth and polished, the sonics are half the pleasure one gets from the album, the piano well defined amidst a lightly reverberant acoustic.


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

Sep 28, 2014

From the Imperial Court (SACD review)

Music for the House of Hapsburg. Stile Antico. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807595.

Stile Antico (ancient style) is a relatively small British choir of about a dozen singers who specialize in music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Founded in 2001, they have made all of their records so far for Harmonia Mundi, this latest called From the Imperial Court and featuring music written for the ruling Hapsburgs of the 1600's.

A booklet note explains that the Hapburgs were one of Europe's most extraordinary ruling dynasties, controlling "greater or lesser portions of Europe from the 11th century until 1918, their heyday coinciding with the supreme musical flourishing of the 16th century." They "essentially ruled Spain, Germany, Austria, Burgundy and the Low Countries" throughout the century. As "successive generations enlarged their power and territory, they gathered around themselves the leading composers of the day." Thus, Stile Antico have chosen what we must assume is some of the best of the music written for the House of Hapsburg in the sixteenth century: eleven selections from as many different composers, each item exquisitely handled.

Some listeners may know the composers, all born in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries, but I found most of them new to me. Names like Cristobal de Morales, Thomas Crecquillon, Thomas Tallis (ah, finally a familiar name), Josquin Desprez (fairly familiar), Ludwig Senfl, Nicolas Gombert, Pierre de la Rue, Jacob Clemens non Papa, Alfonso Lobo, and Heinrich Isaac.

I won't try to describe each piece; the booklet notes do a good job in that regard, providing a background on the composition of each work in addition to texts and translations. While most of the music is in the form of motets--polyphonic songs, usually on Biblical or similar prose texts and meant for use in church services--the various court composers involved in this recording wrote most of the music we hear for events of state, such as occasions celebrating newly acquired lands and power. Well, they were that kind of people: church and state entwined. At least one composer, de la Rue, hung around writing "soulful music" for a despondent and "increasingly insane" widow. Wonderful stuff.

Favorites? Yes, I of course. I enjoyed Morales's opening "Jubilate Deo" for its spacious grandeur. Crecquillan's "Andreas Christi famulus" has a likable luxuriousness about it. Desprez's "Mille regretz" has a touching simplicity about it (and apparently King Charles liked it, too, as it was also one of his favorite songs). A few of the selections were a little too mournful for me, but the motet "Versa est in luctum," which Lobo wrote for his own funeral, is quite lovely. Then, too, the closing number--Isaac's "Virgo prudentissima"--sounds beautifully elaborated.

But picking favorites seems superfluous. It's really the splendid singing that counts here, and all of it is wonderful. Although there are only a dozen singers in Stile Antico, they sound almost like a full choir, their voices blending so well, the harmonies so exacting, the tone and timber so precise, so lilting, lyrical, and soaring. I think I could listen to them sing anything. For the record, they are Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, and Alison Hill, sopranos; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Katie Schofield, and Cara Curran, altos; Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas, and Matthew Howard, tenors; and James Arthur, Will Dawes, Thomas Flint, and Matthew O'Donovan, basses.

Producer Robina G. Young and engineer and editor Brad Michel recorded the music in Direct Stream Digital at All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak, London in October 2013. One can play the resultant Super Audio CD in two-channel stereo on a regular CD player or in two-channel or multichannel on an SACD player. I listened in the two-channel format and found the results more than satisfying.

Probably the most striking thing about the recording besides the fact that it's clear and detailed is how prominent the acoustic stands out. The ensemble members actually appear to be in a reverberant hall with a healthy decay time, the ambient bloom giving the voices both a richness and a sense of place. Yet, as I say, this setting never interferes with the clarity of the voices, which always project a healthy transparency. Perhaps the upper midrange is a mite forward, seeming a tad too bright on occasion, but otherwise there's a fine balance involved.


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

Sep 25, 2014

Alison Balsom: Paris (CD review)

Alison Balsom, trumpet; various guest artists; Guy Barker and Timothy Redmond, The Guy Barker Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646327898.

By now almost everyone knows Alison Balsom; in the past decade or so she has become probably the most well-known and well-liked concert trumpeter in the world. In case you don't know her, the British trumpet soloist has been playing trumpet professionally since 2001; she is a multiple award winner with a slew of albums to her credit; she was the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra; and she's a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. More important, she is a darn fine trumpet player. I read a while back that she credits legendary jazz great Dizzy Gillespie as her inspiration, so if you hear any signs of casual, easy, improvisational, modern-jazz inflections in her playing, well, you know where they probably came from.

Most of Ms. Balsom's recordings have been theme albums, and this one is no different. She writes of it, "The concept of this album has been a long time coming. I'm constantly looking for different ways to demonstrate the many voices of the trumpet, and to prove that we don't need to define our musical tastes by genre. So about two years ago, I decided that it was time to explore a different style for this next project. I was initially inspired by Gil Evans and his masterful reworking of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez into the iconic Sketches of Spain for Miles Davis. I wondered if we could follow this bold concept of moving through the classical world and then beyond, with new orchestrations and unique colours."

Thus, we find Ms. Balsom performing twelve arrangements for trumpet and orchestra (or trumpet and guitar) by eight French, Argentinean, Hungarian, and Romani composers, all of the pieces flirting with the idea of Paris at their center. Accompanying Ms. Balsom on various items are several other well-known performers: guitarists Milos Karadaglic and Al Cherry and pianist Grant Windsor and on almost all the tracks by the Guy Barker Orchestra under the director of either Guy Barker or Timothy Redmond.

The selections include Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 and Gnossienne No. 3; Astor Piazzolla's Cafe 1930 and Oblivion; Michel Legrand's La Valse des Lilas; Olivier Messiaen's Le Baiser de l'Enfant Jesus; Maurice Ravel's Piece en forme de Habanera and Piano Concerto in G major (Adagio assai); Joseph Kosma's Autumn Leaves; and Django Reinhardt's Nuages.

I was not sure at first that the Satie pieces would work out too well with a solo trumpet and a seventy-or-so piece orchestra instead of a piano, but, in fact, Ms. Balsom's trumpet sound is deliciously sinuous and evocative, smooth and strong, the performer caressing each note and coaxing sweet nuances from the music. It's surprising how delicate, how gossamer-like, Ms. Balsom can make her trumpet react to her touch.

It's like that throughout the program. In Piazolla's Cafe 1930, for example, Milos accompanies Ms. Balsom, and the guitar-trumpet pairing proves a winning combination, nicely capturing the dusky jazz-dance inflections of the score. Almost all of the selections on the program involve slightly melancholy jazz and blues-inflected music, and Ms. Balsom appears well attuned to the idiom.

And so it goes. Among my favorites: Besides the Satie, I enjoyed the two Ravel pieces, especially the delightful Adagio, lovingly presented by Ms. Balsom and company with a good deal of obvious affection. The concluding Nuages also touched me and brought the program to a satisfying close.

Drawbacks? Not many. Certainly not the performances, which are sterling. However, I would point out a minor issue: namely, that the disc's fifty-two-minute run time is more in line with a pop album than a classical album, the latter usually filling out a CD's seventy-nine-minute potential a little better.

Producers Alison Balsom and Guy Barker and engineer and mixer Steve Price recorded the album at Angel Studios, London in May 2014. The sound is warm and round, with a mild hall resonance to help it along. The trumpet is rich, mellow, and luxuriant, nicely balanced with the orchestra. The orchestral support does not appear terribly well detailed but is lush and complementary. It's all a bit dreamy, actually, with great swaths of sound in as comfortable a setting as possible. It isn't an audiophile album, then, but more like one for quiet, romantic nights by the fire.


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

Sep 24, 2014

Grieg and Sibelius: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 474 269-2 (2-disc set).

For a long while it seemed as though Herbert von Karajan would always be around. I mean, when I was a kid growing up in the Fifties, Karajan was already an established superstar. He was the leading conductor of the day when I began seriously collecting classical music in the Sixties; he was among the first to jump aboard when digital recording began in the Seventies; and he was there when Sony and Philips introduced CD's to the world in the Eighties. Now that he's gone, DG, for whom he made the bulk of his later recordings, have been reissuing everything he ever did, this collection of Grieg and Sibelius orchestral works just one in a series of two-disc compilations of his hits that DG began releasing in the early 2000's.

The album begins on disc one with music of Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 and 2; Holberg Suite; and Sigurd Jorsalfar: Three Orchestral Pieces. Disc two contains music of Jean Sibelius: Finlandia; Valse triste; The Swan of Tuonela; Pelléas et Mélisande; and Tapiola.

Listening to the first tracks on disc one, the Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 and 2, reminds one of his magic. The music is letter-perfect, luxurious, and alluring as only Karajan could make it. Every note is polished to a luster, the great Berlin orchestra sounding fabulously plush and precise. The orchestral sound alone would make Karajan the most famous conductor since Toscanini or Stokowski, but it would also create for him a few detractors as well, people who considered him a glamor boy over-embellishing the music he performed. Maybe, but it sure sounded nice.

As I say, the two discs in this collection are each devoted to one of two famous Scandinavian composers, Grieg on disc one and Sibelius on disc two. Of the two discs, I preferred the Sibelius because Karajan's way of music making seems best suited to Sibelius's larger-scale works. Grieg, on the other hand, would seem to benefit from a little more intimacy, something Karajan had trouble producing, at least here. Sibelius's Finlandia, Valse triste, and Pelleas et Melisande come off best, with great crescendos and soft whispers of sound piling forth and fairly smothering the listener with riches.

The sonics, though, are typical of DG from the late Sixties to early Eighties. There is plenty of midrange presence, good detail, strong dynamics, and wide stereo imaging; but there is little top end, little bottom end, and little sparkle. It's perfect sound for mid-fi audio systems and car radios, where it was probably most-often heard when DG first produced it.

But even digitally remastered at 96 kHz/24 bits can't improve what may not have been there in the first place. Karajan's fans won't mind, nor did I mind until I compared it to similar material on other labels. Note, for instance, the enormous difference in frequency range between Karajan's 1972 recording of the Peer Gynt music and Beecham's much earlier recording on EMI's "Great Recording of the Century," the Beecham sounding better than a lot of stuff made today. Still, it's the music that counts, and Karajan's set contains some of the man's most likable and characteristic work.


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

Sep 22, 2014

Saint-Saens: Violin Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso; Jota Aragonese; Symphony No. 3 "Organ." Alexandre da Costa, violin; Marzio Conti, Oviedo Filarmonia. Warner Classics 0825646281442.

As you may know, Alexandre Da Costa is a Canadian concert violinist and winner of the 2012 Juno Award, an honor given by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to Canadian musical artists and bands to acknowledge their artistic and technical achievements. Or you may know him for his many fine recordings, including one I reviewed a while back of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. In a booklet note for the Lalo disc, Da Costa said that "a conductor once told me, 'If you play fast and you accelerate, it just shows fear. If you play slower and hold your tempo, it shows strength.'" That seems to be his musical philosophy here in Saint-Saens as well, the violinist holding back enough in reserve to spring tensions and create excitement all the more.

On the present disc, Maestro Marzio Conti and the Oviedo Filarmonia accompany Da Costa on two violin-and-orchestra pieces--the Violin Concerto No. 3 and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso--and then the conductor and orchestra take things on their own with two orchestral pieces--the Jota Aragonese and the Symphony No. 3 "Organ."

So, we begin with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by French composer, conductor, and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Saint-Saens dedicated the piece to the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who played it at the work's premiere in 1880. Saint-Saens reminds us from the outset of the concerto that he wanted Sarasate to play it by opening with an extended passage for violin. Da Costa's performing philosophy pays off as the bravura portions of the score stand out all the more for his keeping other parts in reserve. Because the music is quite melodious and Da Costa is a sensitive performer, he is able to keep us suitably entertained throughout the piece.

The second-movement Andantino is one of Saint-Saens's most memorable and haunting creations, and Da Costa does it proud, if at the expense of being perhaps a shade too literal. There is, after all, more than a touch of impressionism in the composer's music, and that seems to elude Da Costa a little. But it's a quibble, and most listeners will probably find the performance just fine.

The third-movement finds Da Costa at his virtuosic best, with a good variety of reservation and outburst, and Saint-Saens's abundance of happy tunes easily carrying the day.

Next, we get the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor, Op. 28, for violin and orchestra, which Saint-Saens wrote in 1863, again for Sarasate. It's one of the composer's most-popular pieces, so recorded competition here is intense. Da Costa puts a good deal of Spanish flair into the Capriccioso, and even given the competition in this well-loved piece, Da Costa's recording should be one to consider. His command and execution are rock solid. After that we hear the little Jota Aragonese, Op. 64, for orchestra, written in 1880. In both pieces the Spanish orchestra appear to have this music in their soul.

To close the program, we get a real barnburner: Saint-Saens's Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, the so-called "Organ" symphony, which the composer completed in 1886. Saint-Saëns said of the work, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Oddly, though, he would live for another thirty-five years and write over 150 more pieces of music, but No. 3 would be his last full-scale symphonic work. Anyway, as you're aware, No. 3 isn't really an organ symphony at all but simply a symphony that happens to use an organ predominately in two of its four movements.

As much as I liked the performance of the Third Violin Concerto and Da Costa's part in it, I liked the Organ Symphony even more. Maestro Conti provides plenty of energy and excitement in the piece, yet he also offers a well-nuanced Adagio in the middle. He judges the tempos appropriately, too, never rushing, never lagging, and building to terrific climaxes. When the organ enters in the second and final movements, Conti ensures we know and appreciate it, pacing the music to showcase its presence.

Acacia Classics, under exclusive licence to Warner Classics, recorded the music at Principe Felipe Auditorium, Oviedo, Spain in 2014. In the concerto, the engineers miked the violin fairly close up and left of center, so it tends to dominate not only the music but the sound. In fact, the sound appears so skewed to one side that I had to stop a few minutes in and wonder if my playback system or my hearing had gone faulty. A quick check of several other recordings, however, revealed that all was right and proper with both my system and my hearing. So, be prepared for some left-side dominance here (or twist your balance control a bit to the right). Anyway, the violin sound is quite clear, as we might expect from such an arrangement, with a realistic tone and timbre. The orchestra is hardly noticeable behind the violinist most of the time, but it can be reasonably dynamic, too.

Interestingly, when the music turns to the purely orchestral with the final two items on the program, the balance evens out left and right. So maybe the left-side favoritism in the violin numbers was intentional in order to further emphasis the instrument. Whatever, when the orchestra is on its own, it sounds quite impressive, with plenty of fullness, range, clarity, and impact, and even a modest degree of depth. Moreover, in the symphony the organ sounds part and parcel of the proceedings rather than appearing in another room as it does in some recordings. In addition, it has decent low-frequency power, although not as deep as on, say, the Fremaux EMI/Klavier or Munch RCA/JVC discs.


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

Sep 21, 2014

Organ Polychrome (HDCD review)

The French School. Jan Kraybill, organ. Reference Recordings RR-133.

Can you really think of anyone you'd rather have make an organ record than Reference Recordings? Well, anyone you'd rather have making any recording than Reference Recordings. For over thirty years they've been producing some of the best audiophile recordings around, and their current release, Organ Polychrome: The French School, with organist Jan Kraybill is among their finest-sounding releases.

To quote from RR's notes, Ms. Kraybill "regularly plays and oversees the care of the three largest pipe organs in the Kansas City metro area: the Community of Christ Auditorium's 113-rank Aeolian-Skinner (installed in 1959) and Temple's 102-rank Casavant (1993), and the 102-rank Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant (2011) at the Kauffman Center's Helzberg Hall. At the Kauffman Center, she performs and hosts guest organists in both solo and collaborative musical events, including regular appearances with a major tenant of the Center, the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus. As a junior in high school in Colby, Kansas, Jan Kraybill performed her first European piano recital in Andover, England. She earned education and piano performance degrees from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and her doctorate in organ performance is from the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In 2010 she earned the Fellow certificate from the American Guild of Organists, the highest certification available for organists. Dr. Kraybill maintains an active concert career, having appeared as a soloist and collaborative artist throughout the United States and in Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Tahiti; she has been featured at regional and national conventions of the AGO and other musicians'

In Organ Polychrome: The French School, Ms. Kraybill plays music intended to show off all the power and glory of the Julia Irene Kauffman Organ. She does so splendidly; it is all quite effective. The program includes the Allegro from Symphony No.6 in G minor by Charles-Marie Wider (1844-1937); a world premiere of Priere (Prelude in G minor) by Florent Schmitt (1870-1958); the Allegro and Pas vite from Deux danses a Agni Yavishta by Jehan Alain (1911-1940); Variations de Concert by Joseph Bonnet (1884-1944); Scherzo by Maurice Durufle (1902-1986); Prelude et Fugue in G minor by Marcel Dupre (1886-1971); Piece heroque by Cesar Franck (1822-1890); Caprice in B flat by Felix-Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911); several items from Pieces de fantaisie by Louis Vierne (1870-1937); and the Grand-Choeur dialogue from Six pieces by Eugene Gigout (1844-1925).

Starting with the Widor number is like starting a concert with an overture. It's big, it's colorful, it grabs you by the throat. Ms. Kraybill doesn't overplay it, though, or make it sound too bombastic; it just works as a good curtain-raiser. Then, Ms. Kraybill follows the big Widor tune with a world-premiere recording from Schmitt. He wrote it around the turn of the twentieth century, and it's quite sweet and expressive. Indeed, Ms. Kraybill's playing is also sweet and expressive, robust when needed, sensitive at other times. Very entertaining.

And so it goes, with a variety of selections geared toward exhibiting all of the organ's many facets (and Ms. Kraybill's many performing talents). The delicate Alain piece is a special standout, with its vaguely Asian motifs and soft bass notes that wash over the listener like huge, warm waves at a beach. Then, too, Franck's well-known Piece heroique sounds strikingly handsome on this most-striking organ, producing a joyously successful result. And speaking of joy, the Guilmant track displays a wonderfully light, bouncy rhythm that's hard to dislike. Lastly, Ms. Kraybill goes out the way she came in, with a big, robust reading of the Gigout work that leaves the rafters rattling.

Producers Marina A. Ledin, Victor Ledin, and Marcia Gordon Martin and engineer Keith O. Johnson made the album in 24-bit HDCD for Reference Recordings at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in June 2013. Unlike the last few organ recordings I listened to, which were swimming in cavernous hall resonance, this one exhibits just enough reverberation to let us know we're in a concert hall and show off the room acoustics yet also emphasizes the detail and clarity of the organ. The instrument sounds rich, wide-ranging, realistically distanced, deep, full-throated, powerful, and lifelike. Of course, we also get the all-important bass so favored of organ fans; the organ gets down to room-rocking frequencies in select tracks. This is obviously a recording that organ fanciers will enjoy.


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

Sep 18, 2014

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 (CD review)

Also, Legends. Jose Serebrier, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 082564628787-1.

Uruguayan conductor and composer Jose Serebrier may have been in his late seventies when he recorded the present album, but clearly he has not slowed down since his debut with the American Symphony Orchestra in 1965. If anything, the autumn of his years has brought with it a mellowing yet still-vibrant maturity that seems perfectly suited to the material he conducts on the program, Dvorak's Legends and the appropriately autumnal Symphony No. 8.

First up on the program are the ten small-scale orchestral pieces, Legends, Op. 59, which Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote in 1881 originally for piano four hands and arranged the same year in the orchestral versions we have here. There is a good deal of variety in the pieces because the composer arranged each of them with slightly different orchestrations. Serebrier demonstrates an appropriate feeling for the Slavic influences heard throughout the works, so under his direction we get a good deal of dramatic flair mixed in with the more-tender moments. Also, because there is nothing really to hold the ten little individual items together, the conductor has to create a kind of unison among them himself, which Serebrier does through his obvious love and attention to detail. This is strongly emotional and highly Romantic music, performed with passion, to be sure, yet not with undue melodrama. While I have to admit that listening to all ten of these Legends at the same time can be somewhat tiring toward the end, at least Serebrier is flexible enough to maintain one's attention, and you couldn't ask more from the Bournemouth orchestra.

Then, we get the primary work on the disc, Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88, written in 1889. The piece is among the most-cheerful and poetic of Dvorak's works, the style and structure very much in the Czech Romantic tradition and the inspiration coming largely from the Bohemian folk tunes of the composer's native country.

Dvorak marks the first movement Allegro con brio, with various themes calling upon the sounds of nature, like the birdsong of the flute, creating a sweet atmosphere. Things begin, though, on a somewhat sorrowful note, which quickly morphs into a pleasantly happy, dance-like melody. Serebrier takes the opening theme slowly and deliberately, so that when the change comes, it seems all the more radical and exciting. Under this conductor, it's a thrilling, uplifting change that nicely sets the tone for the rest of the work, without becoming bombastic or overwhelming.

The second movement Adagio (slow, leisurely) starts out as the first movement did with a sort of dour quality of sadness and impeding gloom. Yet it, too, eventually gives way to an inevitably triumphant joy. Again, Serebrier handles it with supreme delicacy, creating transitions so smooth, you hardly know they're happening.

In the third-movement, marked Allegretto grazioso - Molto vivace, we find a sort of dumka (a Slavic folk ballad alternating between sadness and gaiety), generally accepted as a vaguely melancholic waltz, followed by a lively close. Serebrier manages the waltz elements gracefully, bringing out their lilting, lyrical rhythms most tenderly. It's one of Dvorak's loveliest moments, and we're lucky to have people like Serebrier who know how to conduct it with simple elegance, without getting all sentimental on us.

Dvorak fills the Allegro ma non troppo finale with Slavic dances and folk tunes, which the composer expected conductors to treat with energy but not too much so. Here, Serebrier ensures that we remember the symphony's smiling-bright disposition, infusing every note with good cheer. Even the middle section with its vaguely sinister overtones sounds ultimately optimistic under Serebrier. His is one of the more-inspired readings you'll hear of this work.

Producer Chris Hazell and engineer Mike Hatch made the recording at The Lighthouse, Poole, England in February 2014. The sound can be slightly aggressive at times, with a prominent but not objectionable upper midrange. Still, you can't say it doesn't add a fair amount of definition and clarity to the presentation, and the result is mostly pleasing. The stereo spread appears wide and deep, providing a realistic impression of the orchestra's dimensions. Frequency range and dynamics are also up to the occasion. Unless you're playing the music exceptionally loud, the sound remains quite comfortable.


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

Sep 17, 2014

Massenet: Le Cid, Ballet Music (CD review)

Also, Scenes pittoresques; Saint-Saens: The Swan; Wedding Cake. Louis Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. EMI Classics 7243 5 75871 2.

This Le Cid ballet music recording from Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (England) brings back a lot of memories. Recorded in 1971 for EMI's Studio Two line, it found its way to my attention quite by accident a couple of years after EMI made it. Back in the mid Seventies I was compiling a list of favorite audiophile records for a magazine article, and I had asked everyone I knew for their recommendations. Everybody contributed: high-end audio dealers, audio engineers, record and equipment reviewers, and various "golden ears," about thirty people in all. As you may have already guessed, this recording of Le Cid figured high in the final tally. It not only contained a great performance of the music, it sounded state-of-the-art.

As luck would have it, though, by the time I tried to buy the recording, EMI had already withdrawn the original Studio Two vinyl disc, replacing it with a low-priced issue in their Greensleeves line. It was still plenty good, with a tremendous dynamic range and a whopping big bass. And the next time it showed up on LP in America was on the Klavier label. Then came the CD age, and it appeared both in EMI's mid-priced Studio line and on a Klavier silver disc. The EMI release retained the vinyl's warmth, but the slightly leaner-sounding Klavier disc sounded more transparent. Then Klavier issued the recording on a 24-karat gold-plated disc that I eagerly brought and still own. Unfortunately, Klavier didn't keep it around for long, and today it's rather hard to find and costly if you do find it. However, the budget-priced EMI Classics edition under review came out in 2003 and to me sounded identical to the earlier EMI Studio CD transfer, which I had always liked.

In any case, it appears that one can still easily find the EMI budget disc, and for the measly few bucks it costs, any listener interested in good sound and good music might want to consider it. The ballet music comprises bits and pieces of the orchestral music in Massenet's opera, and conductor Fremaux and his Birmingham orchestra provide a vigorous, zesty tableau of the Spanish-flavored tunes.

In addition, you'll find on the disc Massenet's Scenes pittoresques and Last Sleep of the Virgin, plus Saint-Saens' "The Swan" from The Carnival of the Animals and his Allegro appasionato, Caprice for Violin and Orchestra, Le Deluge prelude, and Wedding Cake waltz, the former pieces with Paul Tortelier on cello and Yan Pascal Tortelier on violin. In sound that is still demonstration worthy, especially in the El Cid music, the disc qualifies as a unique bargain.


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

Sep 15, 2014

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 4 (CD review)

Fantasies on Don Giovanni and Der Freischutz. Tianwa Yang, violin; Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra. Naxos 8.572276.

Spanish composer and violinist Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués (1844-1908) had a talent as big as his name. He was one of those composer-virtuosos who dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people like Mozart, Chopin, Paganini, and Liszt, who not only wrote great music but dazzled audiences with their virtuosic playing of it. I suppose the only one close to them in the twentieth century might be Sergei Rachmaninov; you get the idea. Anyway, to celebrate the music of Sarasate, Naxos embarked a few years ago on a series of discs with violinist Tianwa Yang, of which this one is number four. It contains two longer works--Fantasies on Don Giovanni and Der Freischutz--and six shorter pieces.

First up are two of the short pieces to set the stage: the Introduction et Tarantelle, Op. 43, and the Jota de San Fermin, Op. 36. These are sprightly works, with Ms. Yang showing off her dexterity and intense performing skill and the Symphony Orchestra of Navarre under Ernest Martinez Izquierdo most congenial in their support. Sarasate was solidly in the Romantic vein right up until the day he died, so expect a flow of lush melodies throughout. A jota, incidentally, according to my Random House Dictionary is "a Spanish dance in triple meter, performed by a couple and marked by complex rhythms executed with the heels and castanets."

Certainly, one must include the Introduction et Tarantelle among Sarasate's most-popular pieces, and when you hear Yang play it, you understand why. It's lilting and soaring and tuneful, with parts for both lovely slow playing and flashy fast showmanship. The jota also has enough variety and virtuosity to keep one engaged, and again Yang's playing is sensitive and alert. If there is any minor issue, it's that one almost forgets there's an orchestra playing behind her. Yet if you make yourself conscious of it, it plays along with enthusiasm.

Next, we find the centerpieces of the program: the Fantaisie sur le Don Juan de Mozart, Op. 51, and Fantaisie sur Der Freischutz de Weber, Op. 14, each about ten or twelve minutes long. Sarasate did a number of fantasies (around eight, I believe), and here we get an earlier and a later such work. The Mozart and Weber fantasies are, of course, medley pastiches, and as such some listeners may look down on them for their lack of originality. But Yang plays them with great dignity and refinement, and one cannot help admire their sheer elegance. And who can deny that Sarasate wasn't passing along great music?

To conclude the album, we get three more short pieces--the Jota de Pamplona, Op. 50, the Airs ecossais, Op. 34, the L'Esprit follet, Op. 48--and the longer (relatively speaking at eleven minutes) Le Reve, Op. 53. Of these final works, the Jota de Pamplona has a jaunty bounce, and Yang captures what seems to me a genuine Spanish flavor with her expressive playing. In Airs ecossais ("Scottish Airs") as the name implies Sarasate gives us a break from Spain and a whiff of Scottish atmosphere, with much in the way of Scottish folk tunes. Yang seems equally at home in the music as she did in the Spanish-flavored numbers. Then Yang delivers the penultimate item, Le Reve, exquisitely and even does a little showing off of her own in the closing track, L'Esprit follet ("The Will-o-the-Wisp"), which sounds as though she must have four hands and twenty digits to execute it.

Understand, as this is volume four in a series, Yang had already done a lot of Sarasate's most-popular material in earlier editions, things like the Carmen Fantasy and Zigeunerweisen. Nevertheless, a big part of the composer's music is entertaining enough to warrant a listen, and Yang's playing is so felicitous it's hard not to want to hear more. This is a delightful album in every way: good music, a good soloist, good accompaniment, and audio reproduction that is up to the task.

Producer and engineer Sean Lewis recorded this fourth volume of Sarasate's music at Baranain Concert Hall, Pamplona, Spain in November 2009, and Naxos released the disc in late 2013. I gather from these dates that Ms. Yang and the orchestra recorded all of the Sarasate music at about the same time, and Naxos released the various editions a year apart.

The violin is clearly out in front, perhaps a tad more so than one would hear a soloist in a live concert. Nevertheless, the violin has a pleasantly smooth, rounded sound that is pleasant to hear--not bright or edgy as some close-up violins can be. The orchestra appears spread out behind the soloist in a fairly resonant acoustic that provides a pleasing ambient glow for the music making. Clarity, dynamics, and frequency response are all more than adequate for the occasion and offer further satisfaction by way of easy listening.


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

Sep 14, 2014

Joyce DiDonato: Stella di Napoli (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Riccardo Minasi, Orchestre et Choeur de l'Opera National de Lyon. Erato 08256 463656 2 3.

American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is a performer who has proved her worth over the past decade or so, becoming one of the world's truly great singers. Gramophone magazine awarded her "Artist of the Year" status in 2010, and one can understand why after listening to any of her albums, like this latest one, Stella di Napoli. Although Ms. DiDonato began early on in her career specializing in vocal music of the Baroque and Classical periods, she has greatly expanded her repertoire since then, and the present album finds her in the early Romantic period of Italian bel canto opera.

Ms. DiDonato explains it this way: "When I look to the early nineteenth century in Naples, I envision a world like that of Andy Warhol's neon-lit New Your City int he '60s, or Gertrude Stein's Paris of the '20s: a hotbed of creativity, rife with bold risk-taking, volcanic artistic output which radically altered the existing artistic landscape. It here in Naples that star after star was born, melody after melody, and to connect to this vivid, arrestingly emotional time of 'beautiful singing' now in the early twenty-first century lights up my musical and artistic soul like a supernova. Benvenuto a Napoli!"

On Stella di Napoli ("Star of Naples") Ms. DiDonito sings ten less-than-well-known arias by seven Italian composers: "Ove t'aggiri, o barbaro" from Stella di Napoli and "Flutto che muggi" from Saffo by Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867); "Dopo l'oscuro nembo" from Adelson e Salvini and "Tu sola, o mia Giulietta..." from I Capuleti e I Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835); "L'amica ancor non torna..." from Le nozze di Lammermoor by Michele Carafa (1787-1872); "Riedi al soglio" from Zelmira by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868); "Se fino al cielo ascendere" from La vestale by Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870); "Par che mi dica ancora" from Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth and "Io vi rivedo alfin..." from Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848); and "Lasciami" from Il sonnambulo by Carlo Velentini (1790-1853). Ms. DiDonato finds able support from Maestro Riccardo Minasi and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyon National Opera.

Ms. DiDonato possesses a robust lyric-coloratura, mezzo-soprano voice, over which she maintains a good deal of control and flexibility. The ten bel-canto numbers found on the program amply confirm the beauty of her voice and her versatility in using it.

The opening number from Stella di Napoli clearly demonstrates Ms. DiDonato's range and adaptability. The song itself offers a number of passages that require her to be rather gymnastic in her virtuosity. In fact, the tune is a bit over-the-top musically, with its variety of elaborations, so the soloist gets a chance to show off her skills from the very outset of the program. It does make quite an impression.

Things settle down after that, with the Bellini selection being tranquil and serene as well as luxurious. And so it goes. The Carafa aria is dramatic and emotive in a largely subdued manner; Rossini is Rossini: robust and showy, with big outbursts from the singer and orchestra; likewise, Donizetti is Donizetti: lightly romantic, lilting, and melodious, with an especially persuasive use of a keyboard glass armonica; and so on.

Throughout every track, Ms. DiDonato shows her mastery of the material. It's a beautiful album from an artist at the top of her game, even though I am not particularly partial to opera and would have preferred a complete opera rather than bits and pieces of things.

To complete the package, Erato/Warner Classics provide a generous booklet of commentary and librettos, plus a light cardboard slipcover for the jewel case.

Producer and editor Daniel Zalay and engineer Hugues Deschaux recorded the songs at Opera de Lyon in October 2013. The orchestral sound is quite dynamic, with strong impact when needed. It also appears nicely balanced--among the instruments themselves and with Ms. DiDonato's voice. The all-important voice is smooth and rounded in a very natural way, sounding most lifelike. I would have liked to hear a bit more depth to the orchestra and chorus, though, which tend, at least at times, to sound in the same plane as the soloist. Well, maybe they were; what do I know. Anyway, the sound is good for a vocal recording: not at all bright or edgy in the loudest passages.


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

Sep 11, 2014

Faure: Requiem (SACD review)

Reconstructed by Marc Rigaudiere. Also, Offertoire (ed. John Rutter); Cantique de Jean Racine; Messe Basse. Gerald Finley, baritone; Tom Pickard, treble; Douglas Tang and Tom Etheridge, organ. Stephen Cleobury, Choir of King's College, Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Choir of King's College KGS0005.

Most of us probably know the Requiem, Op. 48, by French composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) better than anything else he wrote. Of course, people have been writing Requiem Masses--musical services, hymns, or dirges celebrating the repose of souls of the dead--for years, and, understandably, they have been mostly somber, solemn, weighty affairs. Yet that's not the case with Faure's version. As Faure himself described things, "Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest." And, "It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death, and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. My Requiem was composed...for pleasure." As a result, Faure's Requiem has become one of the most celebrated settings of the mass, maybe almost as famous as Mozart's.

Anyway, after writing the work for chamber orchestra and choir in 1887-88, Faure had second thoughts and revamped it between 1898-1900 for full orchestra; apparently he was happy with that arrangement for the rest of his days, so that's the way folks played it until the 1980's, when British musicologist John Rutter found Faure's original manuscript for chamber orchestra, and it opened a new world for the piece. Now, we get a brand-new reconstruction of the score by Marc Rigaudiere that attempts to present the music as listeners might have heard it at its first liturgical performance, here employing a choir of men and boys from the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge and accompanied by a period-instruments ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, lead by conductor Stephen Cleobury.

Here's the thing, though: Longtime music collectors may remember or own another recording of the Faure Requiem that the Choir of King's College, Cambridge made, one from 1967 for EMI with conductor David Willcocks and the New Philharmonia Orchestra that went on, justifiably, to become quite famous. Indeed, it is still my favorite recording of the piece. So there is the temptation to compare the two versions. But it's a matter of apples and oranges; therefore, I resisted the urge. Willcocks performed the later revision of the score that Faure favored, using a full, modern orchestra; Cleobury performs the earlier version that audiences heard when Faure first composed it, and Cleobury does so with a period ensemble, using reduced orchestral and choral forces. In other words, even if you have the one, the other is different enough to warrant an alternative rendition.

A few notes about some of the changes Faure made to his Requiem. He omitted the Dies irae ("Day of Wrath") because he disagreed with this vision of the Judgment Day. He initially made the Offertoire much briefer in the version heard here, omitting the chorus (which he later reinstated and which you can hear later on the album as a coupling). And except for a solo violin in one movement, he left out violins altogether, using just violas, cellos, and double bass, with an organ as support throughout.

Overall, this is worthy rendering of a famous piece, Cleobury doing justice to Marc Rigaudiere's new reconstruction. It's largely peaceful and serene, naturally, the choir and orchestra offering up the music precisely and articulately, never hurried or rushed as we sometimes hear from historically informed performances. It's quite beautiful, actually, the youngest voices, especially, sounding positively angelic.

OK, I said I wouldn't compare this new version with the Willcocks recording from 1968: I lied. I still find the older recording a bit more lyrical, more tranquil, more peaceful, more relaxed and relaxing. That takes nothing from Cleobury's interpretation, however, and nothing from Rigaudiere's reconstruction. It's still apples and oranges. Jus' sayin'.

For those listeners who want the later, expanded Offertoire, Cleobury and company provide it as an additional item, along with Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine and the little Mass bass (the latter sung by sixteen trebles of the choir rather than by women). Cleobury and his performers do up both works exquisitely.

A light cardboard slipcover for the jewel case completes the package.

Producer and editor Simon Kiln and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the music at 96k Hz 24-bit PCM in the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge, January 2014. The present recording offers the music on a hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc, playable on a regular CD player in two-channel stereo or on an SACD player in two-channel (as I listened) or in multichannel. The smaller orchestral and choral forces result in a reasonably transparent sound, yet the hall acoustics are spacious enough that the various groups sound bigger than they probably really are. So we get a smooth, rounded, nicely resonant sound that nevertheless admits a decent amount of detail and definition. Voices are clear but without being overly bright or edgy; the orchestra sounds well balanced with the choir; and the organ produces some prodigious bass when the occasion demands (although, to be fair, the present arrangement uses only those registers that were available to the small choir organ available at the time of the work's first performance). The solo violin, brass, and timpani that appear in some movements ring out clearly and distinctly. In all, the sound is deep, rich, warm, and resplendent.


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

Sep 10, 2014

Dvorak: Serenades (CD review)

Myung-Whun Chung, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 471 613-2.

Dvorak wrote his Serenade for String Orchestra in 1875, for the composer a most productive year that also saw the completion of various chamber works, a grand opera, and his Fifth Symphony. It is the Serenade, however, that has proven of most lasting value, a particularly graceful piece that has come down to us as one of the nineteenth century's two most famous Serenades, the other being Tchaikovsky's.

Dvorak's Serenade most closely matches the Random House Dictionary's definition of serenade:  "...a complimentary performance of vocal or instrumental music in the open air at night, as by a lover under the window of his lady." The music has all the qualities of romance on a warm, still evening, and Maestro Myung-Whun Chung's rendition is warm and gracious to suit the mood. His manner with long, gentle, flowing lines is evident from the very beginning, and his lilting approach to the several waltz interludes in the second and fifth movements provides the work an uncommon elegance and tranquility. It is lovely music interpreted most felicitously by Chung and members of the Vienna Philharmonic's string section.

Most often, record companies couple Dvorak's String Serenade with Tchaikovsky's String Serenade, but this time it is alongside Dvorak's later Serenade for Wind Ensemble from 1878. This piece has a more sedate maturity about it, not quite so dreamily romantic, more blunt and to the point, but not without its touches of melodic fantasy. Perhaps it suffers by comparison to its earlier sibling because it has not the benefit of the more rapturous sound of massed strings going for it; one can only do so much with oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. But it makes a welcome and aurally contrasting companion to the String Serenade.

DG's sound is lush and mellow, smooth and effortless. There is no attempt here to capture any great transparency or crispness but to communicate both works' fluency through the most refined sonics possible. This is not to say the sound is soft or veiled in any way, however; it is not. Indeed, it is clean and clear but in a most comfortable and pleasing way. In fact, the only objection some buyers may have is that the two works on the album total a mere fifty minutes playing time together, which on the surface seems lean value for the disc. Still, with music making of such high order, perhaps it is not the price we should be looking at.


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

Sep 8, 2014

Thomson: The Plow That Broke the Plains (HDCD review)

Also, Suite from The River. Leopold Stokowski, Symphony of the Air. HDTT HDCD369.

American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was not only a contemporary of fellow American composer Aaron Copland, he wrote music in the same vein, and the two men have become inextricably connected with the American experience. The fact that Thomson befriended such American giants as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Orson Welles didn't hurt his reputation or the quality of his musical output. If Thomson failed to get out from under the shadow of Copland, well, it wasn't for his lack of trying. Or maybe it was simply because it was pretty hard to match, let alone surpass, Copland's genius. Whatever, the present album contains two of Thomson's most-famous works: The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains, both commissions for movie documentaries.

It is all fairly lightweight stuff, to be sure--celebrations of Americana in pastiches of folk and folk-inflected tunes that sometimes betray their documentary film origins. Yet once underway it is all undeniably charming and sentimentally appealing, and no one performed it better than the old Maestro, Leopold Stokowski, and the Symphony of the Air (an ensemble made up mostly of former members of the defunct NBC Symphony Orchestra). Stokowski championed both works on record, and the 1960 recordings we have here were the first stereo versions of the scores.

First up is a suite of tunes from The River, a short 1938 film that chronicled the importance of the Mississippi River to the United States. For a conductor born and raised in England, Stokowski showed a remarkable affinity for American idioms, as he displays here. Of course, being intimately familiar with these scores helped, too, but, really, he seems born to play Thomson's music. The composer breaks The River into four descriptive movements: "\The Old South, sounding something like Max Steiner's score for Gone With the Wind; Industrial Expansion in the Mississippi Valley, lively and variegated; Soil Erosion and Floods, plaintive and poignant; and a Finale, cumulative in its effect. Never in Stokowski's reading does he give in to any of his occasional inclinations for exaggeration, distortion, or glamorization. Instead, every phrase seems perfectly balanced and expertly carried through, creating a highly expressive, atmospheric presentation.

Then we get music from The Plow That Broke the Plains, a short 1936 documentary film that described some of the origins of America's Midwestern Dust Bowl in the 1930's. The suite from The Plow is in six segments: Prelude, Pastorale (Grass), Cattle, Blues (Speculation), Drought, and Devastation; although on this HDTT disc, perhaps because the entire suite is so brief (a little under fourteen minutes), we get the whole thing on a single track. Under Stokowski's direction, the suite is both sad and heroic, the themes well unified with a firm control. Incidentally, you'll instantly recognize the Cattle tunes as "I Ride an Old Paint," "Streets of Laredo," and "Git Along Little Doggies" woven together in a kind of waltz mode. The Cattle and New Orleans-inspired Blues sections are probably the most recognizable parts and have made the suite as popular as it is, with help from Stokowski's evocative conducting.

Producer Seymour Solomon (cofounder of Vanguard Records) and engineer Ed Friedner recorded the music for Vanguard at Manhattan Center, New York in 1960. HDTT transferred the recording in 2014 from a 4-track tape. These recordings may come from 1960, but you wouldn't know it. There is little trace of tape hiss or noise; there is a wide dynamic range, good depth, and moderately good transparency; and there is a bass drum whack that would do any of today's record labels proud.

Now, here's the thing: Vanguard themselves remastered the music for CD using Sony's 20-bit Super-Bit Mapping process back in 1994 and reissued it again as recently as 2004. However, since Vanguard folded that same year, finding a new copy of the disc at a reasonable price can be tricky. So, that's where HDTT comes in, making the music available at a variety of reasonable price points (depending on the format you choose: digital download, DSD, PCM Flac, physical disc, CD, DVD, HQCD, etc.). Having the Vanguard disc on hand, it made a convenient comparison with the newer HDTT product.

In direct comparison, the HDTT seems to have a slight advantage in overall clarity, but it is very close. The HDTT disc also seems to deliver a bit more lower midrange, upper bass response, providing a fuller, warmer sound than on the Vanguard product. In any case, both discs sound quite good for their age (or maybe because of their age, depending on how much you think today's recordings are an actual improvement over early stereo productions), producing good depth, balance, and dynamics. I know I enjoyed the sound of both discs, but if I had to choose, I'd opt for the HDTT transfer. It's crisply delineated and clean, clean, clean, with a beautifully extended high end. Indeed, it's among the best transfers I've heard from HDTT, and I enjoyed it immensely.

About the only advantage I see in the old 20-bit Vanguard disc (even if you could still find a good copy) is that it comes with the bonus coupling of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat with Stokowski leading an instrumental ensemble. But if you really want the Stravinsky piece, HDTT also have a version of it on hand with the ensemble Ars Nova that is a genuine reference recording in jaw-dropping sound. Jus' sayin'.

For more information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, visit


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

Sep 7, 2014

Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy (CD review)

Bruch: Scottish Fantasy; various short Scottish selections and various composers. Nicola Benedetti, violin; various accompanying artists; Rory Macdonald, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Decca B0021290-02.

Nicola Benedetti is a Scottish classical violinist, a child prodigy who has developed into one of the world's leading musicians. And by the look of her recordings, she is currently among the world's most-popular violinists, too. A single listen to her 2014 album Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy (she is Scottish, after all, and performing with a Scottish orchestra in Scotland), and one understands why the world has fallen in love with her. Her playing is both sensitive and virtuosic.

The first thing Ms. Benedetti plays is the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46, by German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920). Bruch finished the work in 1880 and dedicated it to the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. As you probably know, the Fantasy is Bruch's sampling of Scottish folk music, in this case a little over thirty minutes of such numbers, loosely tied together in four movements.

Although Bruch gives the notation "Grave" for the Fantasy's introduction, I doubt that he meant "funereal" as some musicians play it. Ms. Benedetti, however, finds just the right tempo and just the right inflections to create a mood of brooding introspection, followed by a flowing, pensive melancholy for the Adagio. Then, the rest of the work follows suit, with the Scherzo lively and full of fun; the Andante graceful and sweet; and the Finale aptly carefree and folk-like. With the BBC Scottish Symphony providing rousing support and a feeling for Scottish idioms and rhythms always foremost, the entire work comes off with high spirits and flair. While it maybe doesn't displace Jascha Heifetz's classic stereo rendering under Sir Malcolm Sargent (RCA), which still holds a special place of honor for many of us, Ms. Benedetti's interpretation is so affectingly charming that one must consider it a viable contender.

After the Scottish Fantasy, Ms. Benedetti provides a homage to her homeland, playing a series of brief selections celebrating her Scottish heritage, accompanied on some pieces by various other musicians. She begins, though, with three tunes for solo violin and orchestra based on the works of Robert Burns ("Ae Fond Kiss," "Auld Lang Syne Variations," and "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose"). They are not what you might expect, though, in arrangements somewhat closer to their original settings, and they are entirely delightful.

And so it goes, with Ms. Benedetti sharing the stage with Phil Cunningham, accordion and piano; Julie Fowles, vocals and whistles; Aly Bain, fiddle; Tony Byrne, guitar; Duncan Chisholm, fiddle; Eamon Doorley, bouzouki; Michael McGoldrick, flute; James MacIntosh, percussion; and Ewen Vernal, double bass. Ms. Benedetti and members of the orchestra end the set with a traditional yet quite-touching rendition of "Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." It's a lovely album.

An assortment of producers, recording engineers, and editors helped make the album at City Halls, Glasgow and Castlesound Studios, Pencaitland, Scotland in January 2014. There's a realistic sense of space, depth, and resonance to the orchestra, with Ms. Benedetti's violin nicely integrated into the orchestral setting, front and slightly to the right of center but not in our face. The violin tone is mostly realistic, too, with just enough steely hardness in it to remind us of an actual solo instrument. Midrange definition is more than adequate, as are bass and treble extensions, and balance is just a tad bright. Overall, it's pleasant, listenable sound; maybe not as transparent as some audiophiles might like nor as dynamic, but fairly easy on the ear.


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

Sep 4, 2014

Schubert: String Quintet in C (CD review)

Also, Quartettsatz in C minor. Gary Hoffman, cello; Cypress String Quartet. Avie AV2307.

The String Quintet in C, D956, has the distinction of being the final chamber work of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), written just a couple of months before his death. People today sometimes know it as the "Cello Quintet" because Schubert scored it for an extra cello. As with most of Schubert's work, it didn't see a major public performance for decades after the man's death, yet today many listeners regard it as one of his greatest creations. Here, the Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Ton Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello), with additional cellist Gary Hoffman, give it an excellent performance in top-notch sound.

Schubert structured the Quintet in a usual four-movement scheme-- Allegro ma non troppo; AdagioScherzo. Presto Trio. Andante sostenuto; and Allegretto--although for Schubert the use of an Adagio was somewhat exceptional. It was a terrific decision, though, as it turns out to be the highlight of the piece.

The players take the first movement at the composer's word, somewhat brisk and lively but not too much so. Their music has a sweet, relaxed quality about it that's hard to resist. They do a fine job capturing Schubert's wonderful lyricism, maintaining each line with obvious care and affection.

Then it's on to the celebrated Adagio, which Ward and the Cypress performers carry out splendidly, in very expressive, emotive terms. While most of the movement remains serene, there is a stormy interlude toward the middle that disrupts the tranquility, yet the players handle it smoothly, making the transition seem perfectly natural and appear practically seamless.

The Scherzo actually sounds like three or four movements combined, moving from one contrasting theme to another. It's not an easy job to hold it all together, but the Cypress players do so comfortably. The outer segments are loud and energetic, almost frenetic, especially at the beginning. Yet the Cypress group never let it get out of hand, always keeping things melodious and sparkling, even when tensions are rising to a whirlwind pitch.

Maybe in some kind of foreshadowing of his own demise, Schubert ends the music initially on a dark note. Although the players take the final Allegretto at the designated brisk pace, emphasizing the music's vaguely Hungarian-rhapsody quality, there is always a slightly brooding feeling underlying the music's bounce. It may not be an entirely happy ending, but it is ultimately an optimistic and satisfying one, particularly in the hands of so capable an assembly of musicians as we have here.

As a companion piece, Ward and the Cypress Quartet give us Schubert's little Quartettsatz ("Quartet Movement") in C minor, D703. It is typical of the composer's late work, atmospheric and outgoing, with a serious tone. The players provide it a rich, active, enthusiastic, and highly polished presentation.

Producer Cecily Ward and engineer Mark Willsher made the recording in 96kHz/24-bit audio at Skywalker Sound in January 2013. There's an almost startling clarity about the sound, each of the five instruments vividly delineated without being objectionably hard, bright, or edgy. Nor does the sound of the five players stretch from wall to wall as in some exaggerated productions; but, rather, it simulates the actual dimensions of a quintet. There's a fine sense of space around the instruments, as well, and a good, quick transient response, which further adds to the impression of the group being in the same room with you. I would have liked to hear a bit more hall resonance and warmth; however, the players are probably a little too close to us for that, and, besides, an appropriate balance among the instruments puts a final cap on an exceptionally realistic production.


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