Oct 30, 2014

Sarasate: Opera Phantasies (SACD review)

Volker Reinhold, violin; Ralph Zedler, piano. MDG 903 1819-6.

First, a word about the artists, about whom you may not know much. Since 1989 violinist Volker Reinhold has been the concertmaster of the Mecklenburg State Orchestra, which performs operas, operettas, musicals, ballet, and concerts at the Mecklenburg State Theater in Schwerin, Germany. According to his Web site, Mr. Reinhold "has gone on to perform a wide range of solo assignments and to dedicate himself intensively to chamber music. Additionally, for some years he has often assisted as a concertmaster with several Northern German orchestras. He has a special predilection for the virtuosic violin literature, above all Fritz Kreisler and also Pablo de Sarasate. He has incorporated practically all of the former's music into his repertoire. For many years he has performed successfully with his regular piano partner Ralph Zedler." Mr. Reinhold performs on a 'Mougeot,' a French violin from the nineteenth century."

In 1999 pianist Ralph Zedler graduated from Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. He worked regularly in the singing classes of Liselotte Hammes, Klesie Kelly, Kurt Moll, Edda Moser. From the autumn of 1999 to January 2011 Mr. Zedler was engaged at the Mecklenburg State Theatre in Schwerin as soloist and Ballettrepetitor, participating in over seventy productions of opera, operetta, musical, oratorio, and ballet. Since 2011 he has worked at capital Opera, the smallest Opera Berlin devoting himself to the repertoire of forgotten one-act plays. Mr. Zedler's concert career has taken him along with prominent figures such as singers Agnes Giebel, Ulrich Hielscher, Jean van Ree, and Edda Moser.

On the present album, Reinhold and Zedler devote themselves to six of the opera fantasies of the Spanish composer and virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). As you know, Sarasate loved to dazzle his audiences, and what better way to do so than by playing some of his own transcriptions of already famous music. The program Reinhold and Zedler present here includes concert-fantasy arrangements for violin and piano of Carmen (Bizet), Die Zauberflote (Mozart), Der Freischutz (Weber), Martha (Flotow), La forza del destino (Verdi), and Romeo et Juliette (Gounod).

First up on the agenda is Sarasate's Concert Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen, as good a curtain raiser as any. Just don't expect a whiz-bang, gung-ho interpretation along the lines of a Ruggiero Ricci in his famous old Decca set. Reinhold and Zedler are more moderate than that; they don't try to generate a ton of excitement or dazzle the listener with their pyrotechnic skills. Their Carmen Fantasy sets the tone for the rest of the program by sounding traditional, well judged, thoughtful, and expressive. Now, this doesn't mean that the musicians don't have a good time with it. Indeed, it's all quite vital and pleasantly exhilarating. They simply don't go after the "wow" factor that must be so tempting in a work like this (although, to be fair, they end the piece in a flurry of emotional flair).

And so it goes, with Reinhold's violin carrying the day and Zedler's piano accompaniment always lending firm support. I can't say I liked some of the more-literal passages they take, yet they more than make up for it with the tasteful sensitivity of their playing. As this is mostly opera music, the players ensure that we hear the singers behind the notes, the violin and piano doubling for any number of voices from quiet solos to big choral numbers.

Of all the works on the disc, I think I enjoyed the Magic Flute Fantasy best of all. There's a delicacy as well as a zest about Mozart's music that Reinhold and Zedler capture brilliantly. Here, it also becomes clear that the two performers have been collaborating for years, their parts working beautifully, seamlessly, effortlessly together.

Another thing the players do well is make these fantasies work as a whole. Under the sympathetic guidance of Reinhold and Zedler these are not merely medley pastiches of starts and stops on familiar tunes. Instead, each fantasy sounds like a self-contained work with flawless transitions to help it appear all of a piece. Fascinating.

Producers Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm and recording and mixing engineer Holger Schlegel made the album in just about every audio format you can think of on a single disc: CD, SACD, DVD, 2.0, 5.1, and 2+2+2. OK, that last one got me, too. Unfamiliar with the format and with no information about it in the accompanying booklet, I had to look it up. Turns out that 2+2+2 utilizes all six channels on an SACD layer to present music not just in two channels front and two channels back but two channels up and down as well. So 2+2+2 captures all the reflected sound of a musical event in a true three dimensions. However, I have my SACD player hooked up only in two channels, so that's the way I listened: first in two-channel SACD and then for a few minutes in regular two-channel CD. In these modes, the sound was quite good. I can only imagine how much more interesting 2+2+2 might be.

Anyway, the two-channel stereo is very dynamic, with huge outbursts from the piano especially. It's never more or less than natural, and it makes a vivid impression on the listener. The engineers have picked up the room ambience nicely, with a mild and unobtrusive resonance lending a lifelike air to the proceedings. There is also a pleasing bloom on the instruments that further lends to the realism of the presentation.


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

Gottschalk: Piano Music (CD review)

Cecile Licad, piano. Naxos 8.559145.

People used to call the American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) the "Chopin of the Creoles," and for good reason. He was not only a sensation in the U.S., he was the toast of Europe and much acclaimed by Frederic Chopin. Gottschalk's New Orleans upbringing and Paris schooling were a perfect combination for the kind of then-new piano music he presented to his audiences, a half century foreshadowing ragtime, Scott Joplin, and jazz.

Of the one hundred or so short piano pieces Gottschalk wrote, this disc includes sixteen of them, representing a varied roundup of his most-popular and most-influential works. Filipina classical pianist Cecile Licad plays them with vigor, vivacity, and sensitivity, yet it's a performance style that may or may not have been what Gottschalk had in mind since there is no clear tradition of playing the man's music. By comparison, Alan Marks on a similar collection from Nimbus plays many of the same pieces at a slightly more traditional pace. In any event, Licad's sometimes leisurely, sometimes highly animated manner seems well suited to Gottschalk's more-lyrical and more-outgoing compositions.

"Le Banjo," the piece that opens the recital, stands out for its expressive manner. So does "The Dying Poet," very well executed here for two reasons: Because the booklet note says it was the most-famous piano work of the Civil War era, an interesting facet of American musical life; and, as important, because it bears an uncanny resemblance to "After the Ball," the popular song Charles K. Harris wrote in 1892 using virtually the same melody. Well, copyright laws were nonexistent in those days and Gottschalk was long dead, so who was to complain?

Among the other pieces in the collection are "Pasquinade," a forerunner of twentieth-century jazz tunes, and "The Union," a paraphrase of national airs like "The Star Spangled Banner," "Yankee Doodle," and "Hail Columbia." Ms. Licad plays them all with intelligence and grace, although, as I say, it remains a question whether pianists of Gottschalk's day would have played them as she does.

The sound is very good, too, and one cannot go wrong for the modest price Naxos charges. However, while the Naxos disc sounds like a very good piano recording, the Nimbus disc I mentioned earlier sounds like a very good piano, period. There's more air and more natural sparkle to the Nimbus recording, elements that set it apart from the ordinary, even if the disc does cost considerably more than the Naxos product. Decisions, decisions, all of them good ones.


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

Oct 27, 2014

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Sakari Oramo, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS BIS-2028.

You can always expect a solid performance from conductor Sakari Oramo, particularly when he's conducting his own orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The question is whether Oramo's recording of Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies is any better than a number of rivals who have already proved their worth, conductors like Blomstedt, Bernstein, Ormandy, Berglund, Horenstein, Jarvi, and others. The answer is a definitive, Who knows? Oramo's readings certainly appear competent, although I can't say they are as exciting, as sensitive, or as thoughtful as the ones from the competition.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was one of Denmark's most-prolific and distinguished composers, writing six symphonies, two operas, three concertos, and a ton of songs, hymns, cantatas, and orchestral, chamber, and keyboard music. He wrote his Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, in 1916 with the First World War raging in Europe, so you can expect it to be one of his more-dramatic works. He gave it the title "The Inextinguishable," a name he said referred to "that which is inextinguishable" or "the elemental will to live." Nielsen went on to say in a preface to his symphony that the piece expressed "the Elemental Will of Life." A few years later, he wrote, "If the whole world was destroyed, Nature would once again begin to beget new life and push forward with the strong and fine forces that are to be found in the very stuff of existence.... These 'Inextinguishable' forces are what I have tried to represent."

Nielsen opens the symphony with a rather fiery, agitated Allegro, which Maestro Oramo handles well enough. It doesn't quite develop the kind of intensity I'd like, but the conductor does play up the differences in tempo nicely as the music swells, ebbs, and flows. Still, a little more tumult might have helped to establish the context of the conflicts.

The second movement Poco Allegretto, which flows uninterrupted from the first movement, is a kind of tribute to peaceful, bucolic simplicity, the sort of quiet and tranquility Nature ultimately seeks. Here, Oramo well captures the mood and paints an appropriately sweet picture in leisurely style.

The third and fourth movements return us to high drama, and it's here that I think I prefer Herbert Blomstedt (Decca) over Oramo. In the present performance, Oramo isn't quite as intense as Blomstedt, even though Oramo seems to move along at a slightly faster clip. I don't hear quite the emotional charge from Oramo that the music needs; instead, it appears more matter-of-fact, which isn't bad, mind you, just not as involving.

Sakari Oramo
That said, Oramo nonetheless concludes the symphony on a properly victorious note, with a glorious drum battle at its climax. Nature does, indeed, triumph in the end; the Earth abides. And Oramo has his day.

Nielsen premiered his next symphony, No. 5, Op. 50, in 1922, and despite a rocky start with the public, it became one of his most popular compositions. Because he wrote it just after the close of the Great War, he included in it elements of contrast, good and evil, war and peace. Like No. 4, the symphony is obviously dramatic.

Nielsen marked his Fifth Symphony in two movements and six segment notations: Tempo giusto, Adagio non troppo, Allegro, Presto, Andante un poco tranquillo, and Allegro, perhaps another indication of the somewhat enigmatic nature of the work. While the Fifth Symphony is obviously a direct outgrowth of the Fourth, the Fifth Symphony is also a force unto itself.

Anyway, Oramo expresses the tone of the music as well as most anybody. It's a more atmospheric piece than Nielsen's previous symphony in that it conveys more differing states of mind, sometimes moving from one state to another in surprisingly jarring ways. Oramo maintains these transitions clearly yet smoothly, never allowing the music to sound merely like a series of starts and stops. Again, Oramo ensures that despite the music's rises and falls of energy, all ends in optimistic, life-affirming joy, the orchestra playing beautifully for him throughout.

Producer Jens Braun and engineers Matthias Spitzbarth and Thore Brinkmann recorded the music at Stockholm Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden in August 2012 and June 2013 for hybrid CD and SACD playback. As usual with BIS, we get a fairly detailed, highly dynamic, and reasonably ambient sound, at least from the two-channel SACD layer to which I listened. It's a mite closer than I expected, though, slightly thinner, and a bit less dimensional in terms of depth. Nevertheless, these are minor concerns when the midrange transparency is so good and the overall impact so pronounced. Bass and treble extremes are adequate for the occasion, and the timpani sound splendid.


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

Oct 26, 2014

Dances for Piano and Orchestra (HDCD review)

Joel Fan, piano; Christophe Chagnard, Northwest Sinfonietta. Reference Recordings RR-134. 

Sometimes I wonder how classical music fans manage to keep all the performers straight. I mean, I see monthly release sheets from every distributor of classical discs in the country, and I listen to five or six new recordings a week. Yet even I can't keep track of who is recording what or who the stars are. For example, when I received the present album from Reference Recording, I saw the name "Joel Fan" in big letters at the top. I had no idea if he was the composer or the soloist for the disc. I had to read the booklet to figure out that he is a talented young American pianist who has worked with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project as well as debuting a few years ago on another Reference Recordings album.

Anyway, on the current disc, Mr. Fan joins Maestro Christophe Chagnard and the Northwest Sinfonietta in a series of seven short dance numbers for piano and orchestra by composers Pierne, Herrera, Chopin, Saint-Saens, Weber, Gottschalk, and Cadman. Fan plays with considerable precision, the Northwest Sinfonietta lend him excellent support, and Reference Recordings produces its usual outstanding sound.

According to Mr. Fan's Web site, he "is a graduate of Harvard College, received a Masters degree from Peabody Conservatory as a student of Leon Fleisher, and is now a Steinway artist. He is one of the most dynamic and accomplished musicians performing before the public today. He is consistently acclaimed for his recitals, recordings, and appearances with orchestras throughout the world. His concerts attract a wide range of audiences, as he has eagerly embraced traditional piano literature as well as an eclectic range of repertoire, including new music commissioned especially for him, world music, and his own transcriptions. Mr. Fan's engaging personality, technical assurance, lyricism, and sheer musicality win over audiences wherever he performs. As a recording artist, Mr. Fan scored two consecutive Billboard Top 10 Debuts with his solo CDs, World Keys and West of the Sun." Well, so much for my not recognizing his name.

First up on the program is the Fantaisie-Ballet by French composer, conductor, and organist Gabriel Pierne (1863-1937). This work came early in Pierne's career, when he was only twenty-one, and Fan and company well demonstrate its youthful vigor and Romantic flair. The soloist captures its light, elegant moments nicely and then fills it out with a grand and exciting virtuosity.

Next is Vals Capricho by Mexican concert pianist and composer Ricardo Castro Herrera (1864-1907). The "Caprice Waltz" is another virtuosic piece, and Fan again demonstrates his dexterity in playing with seemingly ten fingers on each hand. Yet it is also a surprisingly delicate piece of music, with a wonderfully lilting rhythm that Fan and the Sinfonietta express as perfectly as one could imagine.

After that is Krakowiak in F Major by Polish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). This "Grand Concerto Rondo" Chopin based on the style of a familiar dance in the Krakow area, and Fan and company handle it with a charming grace and refinement, with just a touch of twinkle.

Joel Fan
The fourth item is Valse-Caprice in A-flat Major "Wedding Cake" by French composer, organist, conductor, and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). The work is quite popular so you'll find a lot of pianists have recorded it, but Fan does it up as well as anybody, smoothly articulate and cheerfully pulsating.

The fifth selection is Polonaise Brillante, a solo piano piece by German composer, conductor, pianist, and critic Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and later orchestrated by Franz Liszt. Typical of Liszt, the piece is full of bravura showmanship and heroic landscapes, which Fan executes with an unerring command.

The penultimate number is the Grand Tarantelle by American composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), reconstructed by Hershy Kay. Critics often credit Gottschalk as a precursor of ragtime, itself a precursor of jazz. This work, however, is energetically rhythmic in the manner of an Italian tarantella. It's dance tune swirls and whirls, with Fan hardly stopping to catch his breath. It's quite a lot of fun.

Finally, we get Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras, a "Fantasy for Orchestra with Piano," by American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946). His music is probably the most unique on the album, partly Romantic, partly modern, partly Joplin, partly Gershwin, and mostly descriptive, it is melodious, ambitious, and vivid. Fan, Chagnard, and the Northwest players appear to be having a great time with it, and the piece ends the program on a splendidly grand, celebratory note.

Producers Marina A. Ledin, Victor Ledin, and Marcia Gordon Martin and engineer Keith O. Johnson made the recording at Lagerquist Concert Hall, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington in August 2013. As always with an album engineered by "Professor" Johnson, we get above all a realistic presentation. We don't always get the most transparent recording in terms of ultimate or absolute clarity, but we do get a lifelike ambiance, a truthful sense of orchestral depth and dimensionality, a pleasant hall resonance, a quick transient response, a broad frequency range (lows through the floor, highs shimmering endlessly), wide dynamics, strong impact, and plenty of air and space around the instruments. The piano itself appears well placed in regard to the orchestra, neither too far out front nor too hidden away but part and parcel of the overall sonic picture. The recording sounds most natural all the way around.


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

Oct 24, 2014

Jonas Kaufmann: You Mean the World to Me (CD review)

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Julia Kleiter, soprano; Jochen Rieder, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sony Classical 88843087712.

This disc is for fans of international superstar Jonas Kaufmann, fans of early twentieth-century stage and screen songs, and maybe fans of Romantic nostalgia as well.

German operatic singer Jonas Kaufmann says that the idea for the album You Mean the World to Me came to him at the end of a concert when he had finished singing a light number for a crowd of 20,000 delighted admirers. He thought, "Why should songs such as "You Are My Heart's Delight" and "You Mean the World to Me" be no more than encores? Why not make them and other perennial favourites the main programme?" Accordingly, we have an album that includes seventeen light songs by German, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian, and Bohemian composers, the songs presented in their original arrangements and written between 1925-1935 for the Berlin stage and screen. The tunes cover a turbulent era that included postwar economic strife, the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the close of the Roaring Twenties, the worldwide Great Depression, and the rise of Naziism. Yet through it all, people wrote and sang and listened to music: popular, folk, jazz, and classical. On the present album, Kaufmann sings for us some of his favorite popular songs of the period.

Now, here's the thing: You have to remember that Mr. Kaufmann is primarily an opera singer, and when opera singers turn to more-popular fare, the results sometimes sound a bit like overkill. Such is the case here, with Kaufmann's huge tenor voice occasionally overpowering the simplicity of the stage and film numbers presented. He takes it all very seriously, of course, but by making most of the selections sound like pieces from Wagnerian opera, he perhaps loses a little something in the way of stage-musical color and drama. That is, he never quite convinced this listener that he was a character in a musical play or a part of an actual story line. Instead, he offers the songs out of context in big, full-throated fashion, some in German, some in English, the ones in German coming off best. Nonetheless, there is little doubt he loves the material, and his vocal presence conveys solid authority and conviction. He will not disappoint his fans.

The songs are too numerous to cover, so I'll just mention the names of the composers and point out a few selections I enjoyed most. The composers include some familiar names and a few less familiar: Lehar, Tauber, Stolz, Kalman, Heymann, Abraham, Benatzky, May, Spoliansky, Kunneke, and Korngold.

Jonas Kaufmann
My favorite selections include everything by Franz Lehar, whose operettas have always delighted me. Here, you'll find "Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss," "You Are My Heart's Delight," "My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue," all sung in English; and "Freunde, Das Leben Ist Lebenswert" and "Je T'ai Donne mon coeur." Lehar was probably the most popular operetta composer of his or any other day, and Kaufmann does his music fair justice. Years ago the singer Richard Tauber was instrumental in Lehar's prosperity, helping to make Lehar's songs so wildly successful. In fact, Marlene Dietrich once remarked that she understood why Bing Crosby was such a big star: "He's learnt everything from Tauber." Anyway, I bring it up because Kaufmann has a big order to fill the vocal shoes of Tauber (and to a lesser extent Crosby). Having only heard Tauber on a very few occasions, I can say that Kaufmann surpasses him handily in vocal command; however, Tauber had a more delicate way of phrasing lines, something that tends slightly to escape Kaufmann, who is more of an operatic technician than a Twenties' crooner.

Kaufmann seems most at home in the music of Robert Stolz ("Im Traum Hast du Mir Alles Erlaubt," "Don't Ask Me Why"). Stolz wrote primarily for films, and his material seems fairly accessible today, with Kaufmann appearing to put even more heart in it than he does some of the other selections. Likewise with Emmerich Kalman and Werner Richard Heymann. The songs trip lightly off Kaufmann's tongue.

On three numbers soprano Julia Kleiter joins Kaufmann, and she provides a charming counterbalance to the tenor's big, robust voice. In all, it's a delightful album, and while I may have some minor reservations, it offers a ton of musical pleasures.

Producer Philipp Nedel, balance engineer Philip Siney, and recording engineers Martin Kistner and Hansjorg Seiler made the album at the Broadcasting Center, Nalepastrasse, Berlin in January 2014. Kaufmann's voice sounds well recorded, although it's a little closer to us than the orchestra. In the media pictures of him, he's singing directly into a microphone, and that's how his voice comes off in the recording, somewhat bigger than life compared to the orchestral accompaniment. Still, there is little glare or edge in the voice, and it appears quite natural. The orchestra plays lightly and sweetly behind him, never intrusive, always supportive, and sounding nicely detailed at the same time. It clearly knows its place.


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

Oct 22, 2014

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on the Bare Mountain (original and Rimsky-Korsakov versions) and several shorter works. Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.555924.

This is another one of those modestly priced Naxos releases that helps define the word "bargain." To begin with, it will delight hi-fi buffs because the sound is exceptionally clean. Not only are the dynamics strong and the frequency response wide, there is virtually no bass hangover to cloud the midrange. This can be a blessing and a curse, naturally, depending on your standpoint. The transparency of the sound is superb, but without the bass resonance, there isn't a lot of concert hall feel to the music. An audiophile friend of mine once told me he didn't like attending live orchestral events because the sound of real music was too muddy for him; it sounded better in his home. He'd like this disc. I, on the other hand, prefer the added warmth of a little bass overhang and hall reverberation. Personal taste.

Nevertheless, there's no denying Maestro Kuchar's disc sounds great and, more important, its musical content will satisfy a lot of people because there's something here for everyone. The first two items are Night on the Bare Mountain, performed first as originally composed by Modest Mussorgsky and then as later reorchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Although most of us have multiple copies of the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov version, the original is harder to find, the best one still being with David Lloyd-Jones and the London Philharmonic on an old Philips album. But to have both versions on one disc along with the Pictures at an Exhibition is somewhat unique. This was the first time I'd ever actually listened to the two versions of Bare Mountain side by side, and it amazed me how different they are and how much I had underappreciated the composer's original version. Mussorgsky's view is much the coarser, more awkward, of course, but considering the content of the tone poem--a Witches' Sabbath, after all--it works pretty well.

Theodore Kuchar
In addition to Bare Mountain and Pictures, the disc contains two short pieces, the "Hopak" from Sorochintsy Fair and "Golitsin's Exile" from Khovanchchina, both of them done up by Kuchar in fine, vivid, vivacious style.

The Pictures at an Exhibition, as you know, is a series of musical paintings, and Maestro Kuchar does well with them, each episode except the last being quite well characterized. I thought the "Great Gate of Kiev" a trifle underpowered, but the interpretation may have suffered from what was for it an unfortunate comparison: Just about the time I first listened this 2003 Naxos disc, I had just listened to Fritz Reiner's celebrated RCA Living Stereo account with the Chicago Symphony on what was then a newly remastered (and very costly) JVC XRCD compact disc. The old Reiner recording is a marvel of technical accomplishment and musical know-how that clearly upstaged the new entry in every way, albeit at almost five times the cost on JVC and with no fillers.

Nevertheless, Kuchar's account, especially in the early going, holds its own against almost any competition and should please practically anyone who doesn't already have a favorite Pictures. For the money, one can hardly go wrong.


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

Oct 20, 2014

Joshua Bell: Bach (CD review)

Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Air; Gavotte en Rondeau. Joshua Bell, violin; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Sony Classical 88843 08779 2.

I said recently that I'm always a little suspicious of albums that feature the name of the star soloist over that of the composer he or she is playing. There seems to me a good deal of hype from the recording company and more than a touch of egotism on the part of the star involved. Fortunately, when the star is as far beyond reproach as Joshua Bell, it probably doesn't matter. In this case, all we get on the album's cover are the words "Joshua Bell: Bach." It's as if it doesn't even matter what he's playing; so long as we know who's involved, that should be all that counts. I admit I'm still a little put off by it, but I can't deny the results are decidedly agreeable.

So, the first things on the program are Bach's two Violin Concertos, No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 and No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042. Bell, as soloist and leader of the orchestra, takes both of them at a modest clip. There is no rushing about here to outpace the historically informed crowd. Nor is the reading too slow or sluggish. Instead, Bell takes a middle ground, providing a stylishly elegant interpretation that does the music proud.

The question, I suppose, is whether these performances are significantly better or at least different from a dozen other recommendable performances to warrant the disc or download purchase. Certainly, one can say that Bell is a commanding performer, his Bach concertos projected with authority. The articulation one hears in every note by the soloist and the orchestra is a cause for joy. So, yes, one senses a strong presence involved, and there's surely nothing wrong with that. Still, I'm not sure he erases memories of old favorites like Menuhin, Grumiaux, Kuijken, Meyers, Hahn, Zehetmair, St. John, and others. But that isn't the point, I'm sure. Mr. Bell is a modern star, and he will not disappoint his fans or Bach fans with his performances. And it goes without saying that the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, seemingly pared down a bit for the occasion, perform with their usual impeccable finesse.

While I enjoyed Bell's control in the concertos, I liked the accompanying short pieces even more. First, there's the Chaconne, played in Mendelssohn's violin-and-piano arrangement with a further orchestral augmentation made by Julian Milone. Bell calls it an "arrangement of an arrangement" or a "homage to a homage." Whatever, it's delicious, subtle and refined, the orchestra never an intrusion on the detailed intricacy of the work, Mr. Bell's virtuosic musicianship always at the service of the music.

Joshua Bell
Following the Chaconne is the famous Air from Bach's Orchestral Suite in D Major, and ending the show is the Gavotte en Rondeau from the E Major Partita in an arrangement inspired by Robert Schumann's piano accompaniment. Bell handles these closing numbers with an exquisite sensitivity, making them a delight.

As I say, there is not much one can complain about here. The performances are first rate and the sound is fine. However, there is one minor personal annoyance I should mention that I'm sure most other folks wouldn't even notice. Now, understand, I realize that Mr. Bell is a superstar musician and all, and I recognize that he, his publicist, the orchestra, and the record company want to capitalize on his popularity. But I wonder if it's really necessary to have full-page pictures of the man on the booklet cover, the booklet back, the inside of the disc case, the back of the disc case, and two more within the notes? Plus several more pictures of what I take to be his hands. I mean, aren't six full-page pictures something like overkill in so small a product? Well, OK, picky, I know.

Adam Abeshouse produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album, so if you don't like the sound, you know who to blame. He made it at Air Studio, London in April 2014. The sound is a trifle close, but at the same time it's extremely clear and well delineated. The violin appears well incorporated with the orchestra, not too far out in front or too recessed. What's more, the instrument has a realistic resonance around it, making the strings easy on the ear. There isn't a lot of dimensionality or depth to the orchestra, though; it appears pretty much in the same plane as the violin. As to dynamic range, it is quite wide, probably more so than you would expect from a recording of Bach. In any case, it's all pleasant enough and should please most listeners.


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

Oct 19, 2014

The Year Before Yesterday (CD and Blu-ray review)

Percussion music of Kraft, Naidoo, Griswold, Pereira, Schankler, and Deyoe. Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. Sono Luminus DSL-92180 (2-disc set, CD & BD).

A couple of years before the present album, the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet had a popular and critically acclaimed release with their multi-Grammy nominated Rupa-Khandha. This newer album from 2014, The Year Before Yesterday, is a sort of sequel to that success; and because a big part of both albums' success is the high quality of the sound, Sono Luminus is again issuing it in a two-disc set that includes both a standard compact disc and a high-definition Blu-ray disc.

The performances include a wide variety of percussion instruments, with the LAPQ playing them with consummate skill. The members of the LAPQ are Justin Dehart, performer and teacher at Chapman University Conservatory of Music; Matt Cook, drummer and percussionist; Cory Hills, performer and composer of over seventy-five compositions for percussion; and Nicholas Terry, a percussionist specializing in contemporary classical music. All of them are highly skilled artists well versed in the ways of modern percussion performance.

The album opens with a three-movement piece called Fore! by one of America's best-known composers of percussion music, William Kraft (b. 1923). Much of music utilizes marimba, chimes, vibraphone, and drums and provides a wealth of expression. Like most modern music, it seems more about descriptive phrasing than actual melody, but the rhythms are so infectious, the playing so good, and the recording so lifelike, it will have most listeners entranced for its duration. While I found most of the album fascinating, this item was my favorite selection on the program.

Next comes the title tune, The Year Before Yesterday, by South African composer Shaun Naidoo. Of interest, Mr. Naidoo holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Composition from the University of Southern California, a Masters degree in Composition from USC, and a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Theory and Piano Performance from Rhodes University in South Africa. One can see why the quartet chose this number as the title song. It is, indeed, a "song," a sweet and melodious tune punctuated by a series of finely etched impressions from the LAPQ.

After the title tune comes Give Us This Day, a five-movement work by Erik Griswold, whose Web site describes him as an "eclectic composer-pianist" who "fuses experimental, jazz and world music traditions to create works of striking originality." It combines orchestral percussion, "found objects," and toy instruments to produce a work that is both rhythmically driving, moody, and meditative by turns. The LAPQ give it an added vitality through their always precise yet vigorous playing. I especially loved the sound of its central movement, "Cold Steel." I saw maybe one of "The Expendables" in the title, Arnold or Sly.

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet
Concluding the program are three short pieces: Mallet Quartet by composer and percussionist Joseph Pereira, Principal Timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Blindness by composer, pianist, accordionist, and electronic musician Isaac Schankler; and Lullaby 5 by composer, conductor, and guitarist Nicholas Deyoe. Two vibraphones and two marimbas do combat in the Mallet Quartet, a remarkable set of rhythmic vibrations. The LAPQ make the four instruments do and sound like almost anything they choose. Amazing variety. Blindness is probably the quietest and most-sensitive piece on the program and Lullaby 5 the most ambitious despite its seemingly tranquil intertwining of instruments.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores made the album in 24bit, 192kHz Surround Sound at Oliphant Hall, Chapman University, Orange, California in January 2014. Sono Luminus released the recording in this two-disc set on a standard CD in two-channel stereo and on a Blu-ray disc in high-definition multichannel (5.1 DTS  HD MA 24/192kHz, 7.1 DTS HD MA 24/96kHz, and 2.0 LPCM 24/192kHz). Since I have my Blu-ray player connected to my home-theater system in another room from my music system and since my music system has the superior speakers, I listened primarily to the standard CD in the music room. Afterwards, I listened to the Blu-ray disc in 5.1, 7.1, and 2.0 through my 7.1 home-theater system. Sonic comparisons between the two systems are unfair because, as I say, my two music-room speakers are far better than the seven speakers and subwoofer in the theater room. So, be aware that I took my impressions of the music's sound mainly from the two-channel CD. Fortunately, that was probably enough, and one can only imagine that the Blu-ray sound over the same quality system would be even better.

The sound from the CD alone appears state-of-the-art. The all-important transient response is very quick, combined with a wide dynamic range and strong impact. The instruments stand out clearly and sharply, as though they were in the room with you. What's more, even though the recording seems a mite close-up, there is still plenty of space and air around the instruments and a relatively long decay time on the notes so you get a realistic presence in the music. From the Blu-ray disc one gets the additional ambience of the surround channels and presumably greater definition from the higher bit rates involved.


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

Oct 16, 2014

Lang Lang: The Mozart Album (CD review)

Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 24; Piano Sonatas Nos. 4, 5, and 8; various other pieces. Lang Lang, piano; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88843082532 (2-disc set).

You'll have to forgive me, but I'm always a little suspicious when I see the name of a record album's lead performer ahead of the composer that he or she is playing. This happens a lot with superstar conductors and soloists, and it happens here as well. Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang gets his name in front of Mozart's. Perhaps this practice satisfies the label's desire to sell albums, a musician's legion of fans, and the star's own ego, but I wonder if in the long run the popularity of the musicians will hold up as well as that of the composers involved. For instance, whose name will people remember a hundred years from now: Lang Lang's or Mozart's?

Anyway, there is no denying Lang Lang is a superstar and that he has a load of talent. He is one of the most-virtuosic pianists of our time. Whether he is yet a great artist may be another question and perhaps one of personal taste.

Whatever the case, on the current two-disc Sony set Lang plays Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 24 with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic on disc one and various solo pieces on disc two. All of it is excellent, of course; the question is whether the performances surpass so much of the competition that they qualify as art and that the album justifies its expense, even at the apparently reduced price at which the folks at Sony are offering the two discs.

Harnoncourt may have pared down the mighty Vienna orchestra to Mozartian size, but the ensemble still sounds grand and opulent. Maybe too much so. I have the feeling Maestro Harnoncourt is more at home with a period-instruments group. After all, he has been conducting for something like seven decades, and it's been mostly with historically informed performances. Here, he seems a little out of his depth, with an accompaniment that tends slightly to overpower the scores. The consequence is a pair of performances that appear to these ears slightly too big, too monumental for the music.

No such concerns about the solo playing, though. This is one of the best records I've heard from Lang, perhaps because his style appears more subdued than usual. He grasps the dramatic contrasts in Mozart pretty well, the shifts from the purely operatic to the tender and gentle. All the while he dazzles us with his finger work, so some listeners may feel the combination of Lang, Harnoncourt, and the Vienna players is almost overkill.

Whatever, No. 24 comes off best under Lang and Harnoncourt's approach because it's rather theatrical to begin with. Besides, Lang's handling of the Larghetto is delicious and it alone should recommend the set. I've heard No. 17 sound lighter and breezier than this, but that's no matter.

Lang Lang
So, the question remains about competition in the concertos: Are they worth the money when there are already so many terrific recordings from the likes of Perahia, Ashkenazy, Curzon, Barenboim, Kissin, Tan, Brendel, Giles, Andsnes, Kovacevich, and many more? I suppose it depends on how big a fan of Lang you are.

With the solo numbers on disc two it's another story: I have no reservations except, perhaps, about the live sound in some of them. Lang carries out his part with a consummate ease, a little hurried at times but lending a simple elegance and dignity to each piece. The set ends with an encore of the Rondo Alla Turca, which Lang plays at a breathtaking pace. Although it makes for a whirlwind finish, it seemed a mite like showing off, and I couldn't really enjoy the music taken so fast.

Producer Martin Sauer and engineer Julian Schwenkner recorded the concertos at the Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna in April 2014. Producers Martin Sauer and David Lai and engineers Tony Faulkner and Jean Chatauret recorded the solo pieces at the Royal Albert Hall (live) and the Salle Colonne, Paris in November 2013 and May 2014. The sound field in the concertos places the pianist dead center, with the orchestra spread out around (or, technically, behind) him. The sonic result is a touch close yet reasonably lifelike, a bit soft in the midrange, mildly reverberant, and always rich and luxuriant. I noticed nothing untoward about the sound, no brightness, forwardness, or hardness. Perhaps it could have been a tad more transparent, but that's a relatively minor issue in sound so comfortable and easy to listen to as here. Dynamic range and impact are fine as well, and there's a pleasant bloom on the instruments.

Unfortunately, the sonatas on the second disc do not benefit from the live sound the engineers afford them. While the piano sounds great--clear and resonant--one is always aware of a low background noise throughout the performances and a shifting, coughing, and wheezing from the audience. At the conclusion of the third sonata and again at the end of the program, one hears an eruption of applause. I found it distracting.


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

Oct 14, 2014

The American Masters (CD review)

Music of Barber, Corigliano, and Bates. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Leonard Slatkin, London Symphony Orchestra. e-One Music EOM-CD-7791.

It's hard not to like anything Anne Akiko Meyers plays. She has such a gentle touch on the violin, she makes every piece of music a pleasure. And so it is with the three American works on the present album: the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981); the Lullaby for Natalie by John Corigliano (b. 1938); and the Violin Concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), Maestro Leonard Slatkin and the London Symphony Orchestra in accompaniment.

Corigliano in his booklet notes points out that there is a bond of friendship among the three composers on the disc: Barber was Corigliano's mentor, and Corigliano was Bates's mentor. Therefore, the music has deeper connections than one might suppose.

First up is Barber's Violin Concerto, which he wrote relatively early in his career (1939) and which subsequently became one of his most-popular works. It later even became the basis for a ballet. The music is exquisitely beautiful, at least its first two movements, with Ms. Meyers emphasizing its long, flowing lines and rhapsodic melodies.

Then comes that famous final movement that seems to have little in common with anything that went before. After the lengthy, relaxed line of the second movement fades out, the Presto finale enters on an agitated note. Barber marks it as "in moto perpetuo" (in constant or perpetual motion). Apparently, he meant it as a virtuosic piece for a young violinist who complained that the first two movements were "too easy." Well, the fact is, for Ms. Meyers the final movement sounds easy, too, she plays with such graceful dexterity. Nothing seems beyond her reach, yet even though the finale is fiery, she integrates it well with the opening movements. Yes, it's fast and furious; no, it's not so disjointed as it can sometimes appear.

Between the program's two violin concertos we find Corigliano's Lullaby for Natalie, a piece Ms. Meyer's husband asked the composer to write for Ms. Meyer's yet-unborn child. The lullaby is also exquisitely beautiful. Corigliano jokes that it put Ms. Meyers's baby to sleep so it must either have bored her or done its job as a lullaby. I doubt that anyone could play it any better than Ms. Meyers does, given its reasons for being.

Anne Akiko Meyers
The album concludes with a world-premiere recording of Mason Bates's Violin Concerto, which the composer says represents the violin as a kind of primeval, ancient animal. Huh? Well, he suggests that the sound of the solo violinist "inhabits two identities: one primal and rhythmic, the other elegant and lyrical. This hybrid musical creature is, in fact, based on a real one. The Archaeopteryx, an animal of the Upper Jurassic famously known as the first dinosaur/bird hybrid, can be heard in the sometimes frenetic, sometimes sweetly singing solo part." So, we go from the Romantically angelic music of Barber to the more-eccentric music of Bates, with Ms. Meyers making the transition so gracefully, you'd hardly know it was happening.

Anyway, the Bates music is all blocks and angles next to the smooth curves of the preceding works. The Bates is like printing compared to cursive writing. Still, despite its eruptive style, when Ms. Meyers enters she brings the music back to earth, straightening some of the corners and underscoring the otherwise latent lyricism of the rhythms. I especially enjoyed the quiet, sometimes eerie, continuously lovely mood of the second movement, "Lakebed memories." Moreover, the sweep of the bird flight in the finale also sounds quite fetching.

Incidentally, with Ms. Meyers so dominant, I almost forgot to mention the conductor and orchestra. Maybe that's because they simply do their job, never overshadowing the soloist, staying in the background for support. But support they do, wonderfully unobtrusive, providing an accompaniment that always keeps the soloist in the forefront and maintains the atmosphere of the music.

Producers Anne Akiko Meyers and Susan Napodano DelGiorno and engineer Silas Brown recorded the album at LSO St. Lukes, London in September 2013. The sound is very smooth, very luxuriant, yet with good definition, range, and impact. It has a soft, natural roundness about it that is quite flattering to most of the music. It's not exactly audiophile material, just comfortable. It's also a little close, with a minimal amount of orchestral depth, but the violin appears well positioned within the instrumental framework, and the frequency response remains well balanced.


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

Oct 9, 2014

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" (CD review)

Philippe Jordan, Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Wiener Symphoniker WS 006.

According to a booklet note, the Vienna Symphony have been playing Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony since 1903 and have performed it 283 times in their history. Now, the orchestra's latest Chief Conductor, Philippe Jordan, has recorded it on the Symphony's own label. And true to the tradition of orchestras recording under their own label, they have recorded it live.

The only item Maestro Jordan has included on the album is the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique" by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He wrote it in the last year of his life, and it would be the final work of his premiered before he died. Because the symphony is so famous, every listener probably has his or her own idea of how it should go, and Jordan's interpretation might not meet everyone's expectations. The title "Pathetique" in Russian means "passionate" or "emotional," which is how most conductors play it--big, bold, and red-blooded. But Jordan sees more than that in it and exploits its more-subtle depths in a performance of heightened sensitivity. As I say, some listeners will appreciate it; others may find it boring. Certainly, it's a little different.

It's not that Jordan's tempos are slower than average, although in most cases they are slightly slower than those of several other recordings I had on hand for comparison. It's just that Jordan's handling of the subject matter seems gentler and more elegiac than most.

After a lengthy though well-judged introduction, Jordan moves into the main subject with a tender touch. This is not a rendition that will immediately thrill a listener or raise gooseflesh with its inspiration; it is a reading of initially mild temperament that uses contrast to create excitement. Jordan progresses through the score at a measured pace in order to build tension at key moments and then rise to a fevered pitch. The first movement has seldom appeared so agitated as here, the big Romantic central theme more melancholy than we usually hear it, followed by more sorrowful outbursts than usual. It is, as I say, a different approach.

The second-movement Allegro con grazia is as lyrical as any waltz could be, and on its own is quite lovely. The third-movement scherzo moves along at a healthy clip, never too fast nor too leisurely, even though it doesn't probably hit the "molto vivace" pace the composer intended until its last few seconds. Again, this appears to be another example of Jordan choosing to build up to grand, final climaxes for greater dramatic emphasis. So be it.

Philippe Jordan
And thus it goes through the Finale, which sounds more sorrowful under Jordan than under most other conductors. There always seems to be a foundation of mourning, grief, and pain in practically every note, something Tchaikovsky may or may not have meant. But that's why every piece of conducted music is an interpretation, this one a very personal and subjective one.

If Jordan's rendering of the symphony is somewhat controversial, there is one element of the album that isn't: the playing time. Because the conductor has chosen to include only the symphony on the disc and nothing else, the playing time for this classical disc is relatively brief: about forty-six minutes. For those folks who value quality over quantity, this should not make a difference. But still....

Producer Michael Haas and recording engineer Georg Burdicek made the album in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music (Musikverein Vien), December 2013. The sound obtained displays a wide dynamic range, varying from barely audible to room rocking. For a live recording the audience is ultra quiet, and, thankfully, there is no applause involved. Of course, recording fairly close up helps in this regard, although it also loses a little something in depth perception. It's a small concern, given that the music displays a decent amount of hall ambience and a reasonable degree of impact. While there isn't the greatest transparency about the sound, it is natural enough, and except for some slight forwardness in the upper midrange and some minor lack of fullness in the upper bass, it appears pretty well balanced.


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

Oct 8, 2014

Piston: The Incredible Flutist, ballet suite (CD review)

Also, Fantasy for English Horn, Harp & Strings; Psalm and Prayer of David; Concerto for String Quartet, Wind Instruments & Percussion. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559160.

My introduction to the suite by American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) from his Incredible Flutist ballet came in the old days of vinyl LPs with Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra on Mercury Living Presence. The piece impressed me all those years ago, and it continues to impress me in this remastered Naxos recording from Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony.

Piston wrote the ballet in 1938, and while the longer, complete dance work may not have caught on, the orchestral suite Piston arranged from it has been in the basic repertoire ever since. Critics have long considered Piston more of an academician than a full-blooded composer, but The Incredible Flutist is good enough not only to stand the test of time but to stand up against the very best American compositions.

It is the composer's only programmatic music, telling the story of a carnival that comes to a small village and the effects of the carnival on the local populace, especially the effect of its star flutist on the love lives of his audience. The work, performed in eleven movements and lasting about eighteen minutes, conveys a rapturous joy as well as an uncommon melancholy as it explores various aspects of a small-town American scene. At one point during the "Circus March" the composer calls upon the actual orchestra performers to shout and laugh and carry on as though they were the villagers. It's a charming and wholly entertaining piece of music, which Schwarz and his ensemble play fetchingly.

Gerard Schwarz
I wish I could say the same for the other Piston works represented on the disc, but despite their splendid lines and fine performances, they don't quite measure up to the Flutist; or, at least, they're not quite as accessible. You see, the Fantasy for English Horn, Harp & Strings and the Psalm and Prayer of David are more-staid affairs than the Flutist music, and in a few stretches they may seem deadly dull by comparison. Nevertheless, there are some lovely moments in them, and one should not judge too harshly at first listen. Then, there is the Concerto for String Quartet, Wind Instruments & Percussion, augmented by no less than the Julliard String Quartet, which is quite appealing all the way around and should keep almost anyone's interest throughout.

The sound is pretty good, too, recorded, incidentally, for Delos in 1991-92 and remastered in Naxos's "American Classics" line. You'll hear some realistically strong dynamic thumps, a smooth frequency balance, and a deep bass line. It isn't quite as transparent, however, as the old Hanson recording I mentioned earlier, available on CD in the Mercury Living Presence line; nor is Schwarz's performance of the Flutist music quite as vivid or spicy as Hanson's; but the Naxos disc is still plenty good, and it's remarkably inexpensive.


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

Oct 6, 2014

French Fantasy (CD review)

Music of Saint-Saens, Faure, and Ravel for duo pianists. Susan Merdinger and Steven Greene, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

Steinway artist Susan Merdinger has made a number of fine albums, and while I've liked every one of them, I seem to like each succeeding album even better than the previous one. The present album, French Fantasy, I positively love, with Ms. Merdinger's husband, pianist Steven Greene, joining her to play piano four-hands music of French composers Saint-Saens, Faure, and Ravel.

As Ms. Merdinger and Mr. Greene are probably not yet household names, perhaps a little background from Ms. Merdinger's Web site is in order: "Among her many honors, Merdinger is a First Prize Winner of the 2012 Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition, and a winner of the 1986 Artists International Young Musicians Competition, the 1990 Artists International Alumni Winners Prize, the 1990 Dewar's Young Artists Award in Music, the 2011 IBLA Grand Prize Competition "Special Liszt Award," and the 2009 Masterplayers International Music Competition. In 2014, Ms. Merdinger won the Global Music Awards Silver and Bronze Medals for her CD's Carnival and Soiree. She is a laureate of the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition, Montreal International Concours de Musique, and William Kappell International Piano Competition. Additionally, as the Merdinger-Greene Duo Piano Team with her husband Steven Greene, she won First Prize in the 2013 International Music Competition of France, First Prize in the Westchester Conservatory Chamber Music Competition, and was a Semi-Finalist in the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition."

Ms. Merdinger is currently on the faculty at the Summit Music Festival in New York and is the Artistic Director of the Sheridan Music Studio. What's more, she has been performing with Mr. Greene since they met as graduate students at the Yale School of Music in 1984, and they regularly perform in concert together on one and two pianos.

So, on to the music. The first item they play on the program is The Carnival of the Animals by composer, organist, conductor, and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). It's a fourteen-movement suite that the composer wrote in 1886 originally for two pianos and nine or ten other instruments, although we usually hear it these days played by a full orchestra. Nevertheless, hearing Ms. Merdinger and Mr. Greene playing it together on one piano makes a splendid argument for the smaller arrangement.

Because the movements are little tone poems describing various animals, it gives Merdinger and Greene a chance to show off their command of nuance and shading, which they display with consummate skill. Surprisingly, perhaps, Saint-Saens was at first reluctant to publish his suite, thinking it was perhaps too lightweight and unsophisticated. Calmer heads prevailed, and the composer relented. The way Merdinger and Greene approach the music, you can see why the public has loved it so much, and the duo bring out all the color and fun of the pieces. I especially liked "The Kangaroo" and "Aquarium," and the rollicking "Finale." And who doesn't like "The Swan"?

Susan Merdinger
Ms. Merdinger plays the lead piano part (primo piano) and Mr. Greene the accompaniment, so to speak. Together, they produce performances of the utmost confidence and beauty, often sounding like a whole of bank of pianos blazing away, other times creating a mood of whispered quiet. Their work sounds polished and pure and, most of all, touching. Although we hear no overt sentimentalism in their playing, we do find a good deal of heart in it.

Next, in keeping with the gentle, fairy-tale spirit of the album, we get the Dolly Suite, Op. 56, written by composer, organist, and teacher Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) between 1893 and 1896 specifically for piano four hands, although the French conductor and composer Henri Rabaud scored it for full orchestra in 1906. However, the original four-hands arrangement heard here is probably the more-charming choice. Faure wrote the music for Dolly, the daughter of his mistress, and each little movement pictures a person, thing, or event in Dolly's life. Most it is friendly and attractive, starting with one of the loveliest lullabies you'll hear, performed with strong feeling and affection by Merdinger and Greene. Sweet and tender are the keynotes of their rendition.

Lastly, we hear the Mother Goose Suite by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), which he wrote as a piano four-hands duet in 1910. He orchestrated the work in 1911 and expanded it to a ballet in 1912, but, again, the original piano version seems the most delightful of all. Ravel based his suite on fairly well-known fairy tales, and Merdinger and Greene help them come alive in vivid, characterful style. The playing, like the music, is vaguely nostalgic, mostly atmospheric, and always magical. The suite makes a fitting conclusion to a program that is consistently enchanting.

Engineer Edward Ingold recorded the music for Sheridan Music Studio, Highland Park, Illinois in 2014. The sound he captured is close enough to provide good detail yet not so close that it appears hard, clangy, or bright. He has picked up a modest degree of room resonance to make the piano seem entirely natural, too: dynamic, to be sure, but smooth, round, and warm. This may not be as analytical a piano sound as some recordings you'll find, but it is as realistic as any you'll hear.


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

Oct 5, 2014

Schubert: Songs of the Harper (SACD review)

Also, Sonatina for Violin and Piano; Impromptus Nos. 2-4; Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel; Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano; Piano Trio in B-flat Major. Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp; Anna Prohaska, soprano; Ludwig Quandt, cello; Lara St. John, violin. Ancalagon ANC 141.

With a formidable lineup of players and some of Franz Schubert's lesser-known but still felicitous music, the album Schubert makes an attractive product.

First, the players: On harp we have Marie-Pierre Langlamet. She is the solo harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic. She's been on the international music scene since she was fifteen, she's performed with the major conductors and orchestras of the world, and she currently teaches at the Karajan Academy and at the Universitat der Kunste in Berlin. On cello we have Ludwig Quandt. He is the solo cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic. He's been playing the cello since the age of six, he joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 1991, and he made his solo debut under Claudio Abbado in 1996. On violin we have Lara St. John. She is a best-selling artist who has performed with many of the world's leading orchestras and owns and runs her own record label, Ancalagon, which produced the current album. And for voice, we have soprano Anna Prohaska. She made her opera debut at the age of seventeen, won numerous awards, and is presently a member of the ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsopher Berlin.

As for the music, it's Schubert (1797-1828), which all most of us need to know in order to enjoy it. As you're aware, the man wrote a ton of material, almost all of which went unpublished in his lifetime. The ten chamber pieces included on the present disc cover both his early and late years, so you'll find a good range of selections from his teens to his final year of life.

The program begins with three Songs of the Harper, Op. 12, Nos. 1-3, drawn from a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although the harp leads off these songs and accompanies the voice, it is really the singer that commands attention. Ms. Prohaska possesses a beautifully modulated voice that does full justice to these brief, introspective, melancholic tunes.

Next is the Sonatina for Violin and Piano in D Major, written in 1816 when Schubert was nineteen. Here, we find an early example of Schubert's playfulness at its best, with Ms. St. John's violin and Ms. Langlamet's harp (replacing the piano part) working splendidly together. The music alternates between slow and fast sections, and all of it is wonderfully lyrical, especially the performers' handling of the delectable Andante.

After that are three Impromptus, Nos. 2-4, transcribed for harp. Ms. Langlamet manages these Impromptus in positively gorgeous fashion, gliding effortlessly through each number. You'll feel you're being carried away on a cloud on a spring day the way she plays them. No. 3 is particularly enjoyable and would surely charm the most reluctant music listener.

Following the Impromptus is Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, a song adaptation based on text from Goethe's Faust. This selection for voice and harp accompaniment gets the same meticulous treatment we heard at the beginning of the album. The tune is mournful, the rhythm suggestive of the turning of a spinning wheel.

Lara St. John
Then, we hear the Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano, an arpeggione being a six-stringed instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar and bowed like a cello. These days a cello usually replaces the instrument. Here, a harp transcription accompanies the cello, so both parts are transcribed for other instruments. Nevertheless, the result is most pleasing, Mr. Quandt and Ms. Langlamet teaming up for a tranquil, nuanced rendering of this delightfully tuneful work.

Finally, we get the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, "Sonatensatz," from the year 1812, among the earliest of Schubert works. The piece makes an appropriate ending for the album, transcribed as it is for harp, violin, and cello, and the performers coming together for a grand reunion. I'm sorry there wasn't a part for Ms. Prohaska's voice in it, but we can't have everything. What a thoroughly lovely disc.

The Digipak case and the accompanying booklet are beautifully illustrated and handsomely laid out. However, the arrangement of booklet notes seems a bit scattershot, and nowhere could I find any track timings.

Producer and balance engineer Martha de Francisco, recording engineer Wolfgang Schiefermair, and editing engineer Jeremy Tusz made the album at Teldex Studio, Berlin in April 2013. The sound is ultrasmooth, often delicate, well balanced, and quite natural. Never do we find any brightness, hardness, edginess, or forwardness in the instruments or voice. It's sound that nicely matches and complements the music: warm and gentle. Incidentally, the packaging indicates that Ancalagon recorded the music in SACD, although they do not indicate anything more on the subject. I listened in a two-channel system using a standard CD player and then using an SACD player.


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

Oct 2, 2014

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Choral Fantasy. Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and leader; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Prague Philharmonic Choir. Sony 88843058862.

As I've said before, Leif Ove Andsnes is primarily a pianist of subtlety and grace. He's not a big, bravura showman out to wow an audience with his audacious finger work, so you won't find a lot of showy glamour in his playing. Yes, this may turn away some potential listeners who prefer more energy and bounce in their recordings. Obviously, it's a matter of taste. With Andsnes you mostly get delicacy and discrimination above all else. Not that his interpretations can't be exciting, they're just exciting in a different way.

After surveying the first four of Beethoven's piano concertos in previous recordings, Andsnes now crowns The Beethoven Journey as he calls it with Beethoven's crowning jewel, the "Emperor" Concerto. As you no doubt know, Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, "Emperor," in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It would go on to become one of his most-popular pieces of music. However, Beethoven did not give the work its "Emperor" nickname. The fact is, he probably wouldn't have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor in question, Napoleon. Most likely Beethoven's publisher gave the piece the "Emperor" appellation, or maybe it was that Beethoven first presented the music in Vienna at a celebration of the Austrian Emperor's birthday. Who knows.

The piece begins with a big, bravura opening Allegro, the piano entering immediately. One of the first things you may notice from the outset is that Andsnes's performance does not exactly seem "big" compared to many other recordings. I attribute this to the fact that the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which plays wonderfully under Andsnes's guidance, by the way, is smaller than a full orchestra. Thus, the sound is a bit thinner than it might be with twice as many players. In any case, it doesn't affect the performance much except to make it a touch more transparent than most. The main thing is that Andsnes plays the piece with elegance and refinement; he doesn't just bang away at the keys.

Still, while Andsnes may be uncommonly nuanced, he communicates Beethoven's patriotic fervor and heroic aspirations as well as anyone, and there is even a little excitement in the performance. Indeed, many listeners will welcome Andsnes's thoughtful approach to the score.

This thoughtfulness extends especially to the Adagio, which under Andsnes's guidance is as lovely as any you'll hear. Yet Andsnes does not pursue any slow or dreamy tempos, so there is no hint of slackness about the performance. It's quite nice, actually, and it transitions effortlessly into the finale with an uncommon smoothness. Once into the finale, some listeners will perhaps want a more-thrilling close, but Andsnes follows up with a more-intellectual approach, neatly coinciding with the rest of his reading. Obviously, this is not a recording for everyone, nor would I want it as the only one on my shelf; but it makes another fine alternative choice.

Leif Ove Andsnes
The coupling on the disc is Beethoven's Choral Fantasy in C Minor, Op. 80, written in 1808, a year earlier than the "Emperor" Concerto despite its opus number. The composer wrote the piece specifically to conclude a concert that also included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and a part of the C Major Mass. He wanted a big finale for the concert, and he got one. Later, Beethoven would use a similar approach (and similar music) in the finale to his Ninth Symphony, though on an even nobler scale. Anyway, like his interpretation of the piano concerto, Andsnes's rendition of the Choral Fantasy is not one to bowl over a person with its thrills, yet it does offer a measured beauty. As always, Andsnes's playing is precise and controlled, with admirable flexibility and virtuosity, while never allowing his skills to overshadow the music, the music always foremost. Additionally, the small chorus employed sounds crisp in their articulation and offers a hint of bigger and even better things to come for Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the album at Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic in May 2014. As I mentioned previously, the slightly smaller size of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (about forty-five musicians) provides for a touch more transparency than you might hear from a full-sized orchestra. Yet there is also a warmth about the sound and a small degree of hall resonance that softens any hint of brightness or edge. The piano sounds well centered and well integrated into the proceedings, not too far out in front or too recessed. Moreover, the piano comes across warmly enough without sounding hard. It was clearly the intent of the Sony engineering team to capture a realistic concert-hall sound, and I have to admit that while it displays some small lack of sparkle, it has a very natural quality about it. Frequency extremes, dynamic range, and transient impact are all more than adequate as well.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa