Nov 30, 2014

Stravinsky: Solo Piano Works (CD review)

Jenny Lin, piano. Steinway & Sons 30028.

My guess is that most folks know Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) mainly as a writer of avant-garde scores, primarily ballets, that helped change the course of modern music. Yet he was much more diverse than that, turning in later life first to a more-traditional, neoclassical style and then to the technique of serialism. And along the way he produced a number of short piano works, things that often go overlooked nowadays. Which is probably why pianist Jenny Linn assembled this album of Stravinsky piano pieces. It's a nice reminder of the man's highly diversified compositional talents.

Incidentally, for those few of you unfamiliar with Ms. Lin, she is a Taiwanese-born American pianist of many talents herself. She began studying piano when she was four, went to the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., and then to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. She received an Artist Diploma from Peabody and a bachelor's degree in German Literature from the Johns Hopkins University. After that, she moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to study with the pianist Dominique Weber, since then also working with Richard Goode, Blanca Uribe, Leon Fleisher, Dimitri Bashkirov, and Andreas Staier. For the past few decades she has performed in practically every major venue in the world and produced numerous record albums.

So, here Ms. Lin plays Stravinsky, and it's really quite a bit more fun than you might imagine. Or maybe, given that any music by Stravinsky can be fun, you expected that. And given Ms. Lin's often daring programming, you imagined it would be fun from the start. Anyway, it is. She begins with Stravinsky's Piano Sonata of 1924 and runs on through eleven more items, concluding with Guido Agosti's 1928 piano transcription of the composer's Firebird Suite. In between, we find any number of varied and engaging pieces, of which I'll just describe a few.

Oddly enough, by the way, even though I know Ms. Lin's name well enough, I had never actually heard her play until reviewing this disc. She is very persuasive (and, certainly, the material is). She plays with grace and sensitivity, yet with power and authority, too, all the while displaying a virtuosic command of the keyboard.

So, she begins with the Sonata, which is in a traditional three movements and a kind of neoclassical style. But because it's Stravinsky, there are some delightful surprises along the way. The Sonata may be slightly lightweight fare for Stravinsky, but it's really quite charming, especially the middle Adagietto section, with its classical overtones. It's also quite brief, and Ms. Lin plays it with a hint of playfulness.

Jenny Lin
Four études come next, which are also quite brief. But Ms. Lin keeps them rhythmically alive and surprisingly lyrical and melodious as the case may be.

Then, Ms. Lin amuses us with some even lighter pieces: Ragtime (with little of Scott Joplin involved because Stravinsky said he had not actually heard any ragtime music, only read the sheet music). Still, it's definitely ragtime, particularly as Lin plays it. A polka, tango, waltz, and more ragtime follow, and they, too, are lightheartedly entertaining, while still showing imaginative touches that only a composer of Stravinsky's creativity might add. Ms. Lin displays an affection for the music, and one cannot help enjoying its sweet spirit (and the waltz's sweet lilt).

The Serenade in A is one of the longer works on the program, four movements patterned after classical "nachtmusik," mostly gentle and serene, the penultimate movement a touch more rowdy than the others. Again, we hear an elegant interpretation from Lin.

Stravinsky wrote Circus Polka for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1942 as a ballet for elephants. Later, human dancers would perform it. Expect more lightweight fun here, which Ms. Lin is quick to exploit in a charming piece.

After a couple of other selections, the program ends with Guido Agosti's piano transcription of three movements from the Firebird Suite. Here, Ms. Lin has a chance to show off her dexterity, power, and composure in one place. Hers is an exciting yet surprisingly poetic reading. Or perhaps not so surprising given all that went before.

Overall, this is a lovely, revealing recital, presented by an artist at the peak of her form.

Producer Dan Mercuruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded Ms. Li at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in June 2013. The equipment they used includes a Metric Halo ULN-8 audio processor and DPA 4006 microphones, and the piano Ms. Lin plays is a Steinway Model D #590904. The piano sound is at once warm and detailed, realistically rich and resonant. It's a pleasant, lifelike affair, set in a most-natural sounding environment. Well, to be fair, we wouldn't have expected anything less from Sono Luminus Studios.


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

Nov 26, 2014

Coleridge-Taylor: Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (CD review)

Also, Dvorak: Symphonic Variations. Richard Lewis, tenor; Royal Choral Society; Sir Malcolm Sargent, Philharmonia Orchestra. IDIS 6672.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was an English composer of such distinction in his relatively short musical life that some of his admirers at the time referred to him as the "African Mahler." Today, people hardly recognize him at all, or if they do, they confuse him with the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, after whom the composer's mother named him.

In any case, in 1898 Coleridge-Taylor, with the help of conductor and composer Edward Elgar, premiered his cantata for chorus and orchestra Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, Op. 30, No. 1, which pretty much made his name. Apparently, Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha" inspired the composer (he would even later name his son Hiawatha), and with the success of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, Coleridge-Taylor went on to write two sequels for a Hiawatha Trilogy.

Then, in the early 1920's, about a decade after Coleridge-Taylor's early death from pneumonia, the Royal Albert Hall began a series of yearly productions of the Hiawatha music, mostly conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, who recorded the material several times, the final one being the recording we have here. It's a 1962 studio recording, made on the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death.

The disc presents Coleridge-Taylor's work in four sections: "Introduction: You shall hear"; "He was dressed in shirt"; "Onaway! Awake, beloved!"; and "Thus the gentle Chibiabos."

I doubt that anyone before or since has captured the spirit of Coleridge-Taylor's music better than Sir Malcolm in this '62 performance. Even today his interpretation sounds fresh and alive, the melodies carefully and lovingly presented. Most important, the chorus sings with feeling and precision, and tenor Richard Lewis sounds quite elegant in the famous aria "Onaway! Awake, beloved," which became something of a hit tune among tenors in the first half of the twentieth century.

The chorus sings with rigorous articulation and a zesty affection for the music. Sargent chooses moderate tempos throughout, one assumes speeds and phrasing well thought out and well tested over the years.

Sir Malcolm Sargent
One doesn't see many new recordings of this music anymore, which is a good reason why Sargent still has practically the field to himself. I suspect that modern audiences find the music rather old-fashioned, perhaps even corny, redundant, and dull; therefore, record companies are reluctant to record it. Meanwhile, we have Sargent's recording, which will suffice, no doubt, for many years to come.

In addition to Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, the disc contains a studio recording of Antonin Dvorak's Symphonic Variations, Op. 78, again with Sir Malcolm and the Philharmonia, this time from 1959. The Dvorak work begins very gently and proceeds from the tranquil main theme through twenty-seven variations, all of which Sir Malcolm negotiates with ease, nicely bringing out the Czech spirit of the piece. It's actually a delightful and probably underappreciated piece of music. I'm glad we have Sargent's reading around as a reminder how good it can be.

As I say, Sir Malcolm made the Coleridge-Taylor recording in 1962, and at the time EMI released it. I owned the vinyl LP for many years until it became a casualty of the CD era. I always figured to replace it, but when EMI finally did issue it on compact disc, I must have missed out. Since then, EMI and other record studios have reissued it on CD, and I believe it may still be available on Classics for Pleasure and a few other labels. Now, the folks at the Italian record company IDIS (Istituto Discografico Italiano) have come along with their 2013 remastering of the work.

The only snag: I'd swear both the Coleridge-Taylor and Dvorak works are in monaural. I'd also swear Sir Malcolm recorded the Coleridge-Taylor in stereo and that my old LP was in stereo. So what's going on? Nowhere on the IDIS packaging or on the disc itself could I find any indication of mono or stereo, and my e-mail to IDIS went unanswered. My conclusion: Either this remastering is in monaural, or it's the narrowest stereo I've ever heard.

That said, the sound quality (mono or stereo, who knows) is quite good in both pieces. It's full and rich, with no undue brightness in the upper midrange or treble and no edge on the voices. There is also a fairly wide dynamic range and fine transparency throughout, with only the faintest hint of background noise. The frequency response is a bit limited, though, and there is a slight softness to the upper treble; otherwise, the sound appears reasonably natural and well balanced.


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

Nov 25, 2014

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Scriabin: Etudes. Lang Lang, piano; Yuri Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Telarc CD-80582.

Whatever faults I might have found with Chinese pianist Lang Lang's 2001 rendition of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto I should probably attribute to the sound of the recording as much as to the artist. Recorded live in August of 2001 at a Proms Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, the interpretation is at once lively and volcanic, reticent and withdrawn. Certainly, Lang Lang is a pianist of contrasting temperaments, and he displays it in abundance in this performance, for good or for bad. Personally, I found the performance from both Lang and the orchestra somewhat underpowered compared to the best I've heard, including the composer's mono rendition; but I suspect Lang's fans will find it just right.

As to the performance more specifically, Lang begins it in a relatively staid, reserved manner, and he doesn't begin to allow it to come alive until the final moments of the first movement and then the concluding movement. He executes the slow, second movement Adagio beautifully, however, from beginning to end, and by the time he finishes the entire concerto, things bode well for the Scriabin Etudes and the little Chinese folk song that follow.

Lang Lang
The thing is, I've never been keen on live performances, and this disc reminded me why. Audience noises in the concerto constantly intrude upon the serenity of the quieter passages, and then the sound engineers subject us to a burst of applause at the end. Additionally, the piano's image seems sometimes small and distant, sometimes large, wide, and close, with little rhyme or reason as to why. The orchestra often appears soft or muted, to the point you'd think it had disappeared entirely, when suddenly it bursts forth with a strong, dynamic force, making you wonder where it had been all along. Now, understand, I'm all for a wide dynamic range, as long it sounds natural, the way one might hear it at a real, live event, not from a recorded one. Ironically, for a live recording, this one didn't sound to me "live" at all except for the audience noise.

Telarc recorded the Etudes in a studio, and they come off much better than the Rachmaninov in almost every way. Most important, the sound is not only quieter but seems better balanced than in the Rachmaninov concerto. Oh, yes, and then there's Telarc's booklet insert, which is one of those foldout affairs that opens up to nearly two feet across your lap, making reading it a chore.

I've never considered it my job to tell people what to buy, only to provide my reactions to recordings; still, I have to admit that if I were a first-time buyer looking for a stereo version of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, I'd stick to the tried-and-true recordings from Martha Argerich (Philips), Vladimir Horowitz (RCA), Byron Janis (Mercury), Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), and if you don't mind monaural sound, the composer's own authoritative version (RCA).


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

Nov 23, 2014

Of Kings & Angels (CD review)

A Christmas Carol Collection. Mediaeval Baebes. QOS 009CD.

It's that time of year again. Well, it's that time of year if you're reading this around Christmas time, anyway. The musical ensemble Mediaeval Baebes present a holiday celebration of seventeen Christmas carols on their album Of Kings & Angels.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mediaeval Baebes, Wikipedia describes them as "a British ensemble of female musicians founded in the 1990s by Dorothy Carter and Katharine Blake. It included some of Blake's colleagues from the band Miranda Sex Garden, as well as other friends who share her love of medieval music. The lineup often rotates from album to album, and ranges from six to twelve members. As of 2010, the group sold some 500,000 records worldwide, their most successful being Worldes Blysse with 250,000 copies purchased."

The current members include Katharine Blake, Esther Dee, Clare Marika Edmondson, Sarah Kayte Foster, Emily Alice Ovenden, and Josephine Ravenheart, with several additional musicians accompanying them on medieval instruments and vocals. Mediaeval Baebes are a talented group of singers who in various configurations have been singing together for nearly twenty years. Surely, practice makes perfect, and they are just that, their voices blending in heavenly harmony, the solos just as radiant.

Most listeners will find the majority of the carols familiar: "I Saw Three Ships," "We Three Kings," "The Holly and the Ivy," "Ding Dong Merrily on High," "Good King Wenceslas," "Away in a Manger," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and "Silent Night." But then there are less familiar items, like "Ther Is No Rose of Swych Vertu," sung in Middle English; "In the Bleak Midwinter," with words by Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst; "Gaudete," sung in Mediaeval Latin; "Veni, Veni Emmanuel," based on a Latin text; and so on.

Each song is a little gem, but I found a number of them of particular interest. "The Holly and the Ivy" stands out for the sweet spirit of the ensemble, as well as the precision of its execution. They project the song with exactness and heart, a winning combination. "Ther Is No Rose," Veni, Veni," and "The Angel Gabriel" appealed to me for the beauty of the ensemble's a cappella harmony, which needs no support or accompaniment to sound celestial. "Ding Dong" is joyful and zesty; the combination of Rossetti and Holst is nigh irresistible; "Away in a Manger" benefits from the complement of a delightful zither; "God Rest Ye" gets a more nineteenth-century treatment than we usually hear; "Silent Night" profits from not sentimentalizing it; and Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol" is almost not a carol at all, yet works perfectly well for its symbolism.

Certainly, this is not your usual Christmas album, yet it's one that should please both classical and popular-music fans. Very enjoyable.

Mediaeval Baebes recorded the album in 2013 at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge and Bellissima Studios, with Katharine Blake producing and musically directing the music and Ms. Blake and Rob Toulson engineering and mixing it. The sound is quite clear, the solos a bit close and the upper midrange a tad forward. I liked that the supporting vocals were fairly dimensional and not necessarily in the same plane as the lead singer. Too often, however, individual instruments appear highlighted, somewhat lessening the sound's natural or lifelike effect. I also detected a very slight high-frequency background noise, not exactly a hiss but more of a steady-state whine, that accompanied much of the music. Fortunately, these are minor concerns, and most listeners will no doubt find the sonics quite attractive.


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

Nov 20, 2014

Fantasy (CD review)

Piano fantasies of Schubert, Hirtz, Mozart, Di Liberto, and Schumann. Jon Kimura Parker, piano. FP 0908.

Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker fairly attacks the piano. And we wouldn't expect anything less of him. He is a pianist of distinct personality, one who isn't afraid of pouring everything of himself into a piece, for better or for worse. Last time out, I found his piano transcription of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring one of my favorite albums of 2013, and I found these present performances of various fantasies for piano no less pleasurable.

First up on the "Fantasy" agenda is the Fantasie in C Major, D. 760, "Wanderer" by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). It's a four-movement affair that Schubert wrote in 1822. It's apparently so difficult to play that even the composer admitted he could not do it justice. Well, Parker does do it justice, and then some. While most other pianists in my experience play it rather sedately, Parker goes at it with vigor and virtuosic vitality. Still, he doesn't just bang away at the keys; he modulates the playing beautifully, going from softest to loudest passages with grace and élan. Parker catches the music's rhythmic thrust with enthusiasm, to be sure, yet he manages to convey its poetic qualities with equal confidence. The reading is riveting. I can't remember when this work so engrossed me.

Next is a somewhat unusual choice that only Parker would come up with, the Wizard of Oz Fantasy by William Hirtz, based on themes by Harold Arlen and Herbert Stothart from the famous 1939 movie. Parker approaches the music with all the seriousness he would accord a classical piece, yet he captures the score's fun along the way. Hirtz wrote his little fantasy in 1999 for piano duet, and Parker asked the composer if he could arrange a solo version, which he plays here. Solo adaptation or no, it still sounds as though Parker is playing with four hands. The music is wonderful; more than a mere medley or pastiche, the score hangs together on its own, with unifying transitions smoothly drawn under Parker's guidance. As I say, fun stuff.

Then it's the Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, KV 397, by W.A. Mozart (1756-1791). He wrote it in 1782 but left it unfinished. Parker improvises an ending for it, so, as he says, if it's not to your liking, don't blame Mozart. Under Parker, the music floats as gently through the air as a summer breeze, the occasional stronger currents warmly communicated.

Jon Kimura Parker
The penultimate work is the Fantasy on the Cavalleria Rusticana, Italian pianist Calogero Di Liberto's (b. 1973) take on music from Pietro Mascagni's opera. Di Liberto wrote the piece in 2005 while completing his doctoral studies in Parker's piano studio at Rice University, where Parker is a Professor of Piano. The music is familiar and theatrical, and Parker makes the most of its operatic, almost melodramatic qualities. Nevertheless, it's Parker's handling of the music's quieter moments that catches one's attention; it's quite lovely.

Finally, the album ends with the Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). It's one of Schumann's finest works for piano, a three-movement piece written in 1836, revised and published in 1839, and dedicated to Franz Liszt. Parker tells us his battered old copy of Schumann's score bears the words of his mentor: "Sentiment without sentimentality," "Proportion vs. freedom," and "Surge!" I like that last bit best because it clearly defines Parker's approach: he always appears to be surging ahead, whether it's dynamically, impulsively, sweetly, or lyrically. His cadences, tempos, inflections, pauses, contrasts, reflections, and rushes of emotion continuously move the work forward in a manner that seems as if it's the only way anyone could possibly want to take it. Yet few do. Remarkable work.

Again Parker scores with another favorite recording of the year for me.

Producer Aloysia Friedmann and engineer and editor Andy Bradley recorded the music at Stude Concert Hall, the Shepard School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas in September 2012 and August 2014. The piano sound is excellent, very big and robust to match Mr. Parker's playing style, while not so close that the instrument stretches all the way across the room. Transient response is very quick, with impact fast and clean. There's no hint of edginess, steeliness, or forwardness to the sound, either; it's all quite dynamic, natural, and lifelike, with a mild ambient resonance and moderate decay time to add to the effect.


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

Nov 19, 2014

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (CD review)

Also, Scythian Suite. Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano; Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. Philips 289 473 600-2.

A big, brawny, red-blooded Russian performance of the Scythian Suite and a relatively restrained but stately reading of Alexander Nevsky get undermined by sonics that might peel plaster at forty feet. By the time it was over, the album had fairly thrilled and almost deafened me at the same time. A bit frustrating, you know?

But let me start at the beginning. In its plainness, the disc cover is among the least attractive I've seen in years, and the packaging offers no track information until you dig into the accompanying booklet. So the packaging has already annoyed me before I even start to listen to the disc. Then, the program begins with the rather noisy Scythian Suite, which looks as though it was Prokofiev's attempt in 1915 to out-Stravinsky Stravinsky. Scythian is a ballet in Prokofiev's early mode but with little of Stravinsky's (or Prokofiev's later) subtlety. Gergiev and his Kirov players do what they can with it, and, indeed, it comes off with the combination of reflection and ferocity that the score deserves, whether you like it or not.

Finally, by track five we get to the star of the show, Alexander Nevsky, the cantata for mezzo-soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra that Prokofiev wrote for the 1939 film of the same name by Sergei Eisenstein. The movie and the music celebrate the deeds of an ancient, thirteenth-century Russian warrior, leader, and folk hero.

Valery Gergiev
The Nevsky music does credit to the legendary character with its colorful tone painting, its melting tragedy, and its ultimately uplifting spirit; and maestro Gergiev conveys most of it with a surprising nobility and control, if that's the kind of interpretation you're seeking. For me, Gergiev's rendition tends to lack the flair I was expecting (or hoping for). Still, if you're looking for a tamer, more deeply serious rendering of Prokofiev than usual, Gergiev may be your man.

But that sound. Philips recorded it live at the opening concert of the first Moscow Easter Festival, May 5, 2002, and maybe because they did it live did them in. While the stereo imaging is fine, if a bit close and constricted, the upper midrange and lower treble fairly toll the rafters, and with little compensating lower-octave response to offset it, it can be deadly. Unless your playback system is somewhat soft or dull to begin with, you may find yourself leaving the room with your ears ringing.

For years a direct rival to this disc has been a DG Originals release of the same material by Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony, which comes in at mid price. By comparison, Abbado's performance is marginally more sympathetic, more heartfelt, and more moving; and even better, the sound appears more naturally balanced, if somewhat artificially imaged. Nevertheless, if we were taking a vote, I'd definitely go with Abbado.


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

Nov 17, 2014

A Chopin Recital (CD review)

Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons 30038.

It's obviously no accident that so many concert pianists play so much Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. These were composers who were pianists themselves, loved the instrument, loved what it could do, and loved what they did with it. In the case of Polish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), he produced possibly the greatest number of poetic and dramatic piano pieces of all, so it takes a pianist with a strong poetic sensibility and a reasonably forceful dramatic flair to communicate his music well. American concert pianist and Steinway Artist Andrew Rangell possesses just such a sensibility and flair, along with an uncommonly thoughtful approach to the music.

A year or so ago I reviewed another album by Mr. Rangell, that one called A Folk Song Runs Through It, and I said at the time that he practices a light, often delicate touch, while maintaining a good deal of power in reserve, making his technique not only impressively virtuosic but uncommonly sensitive and diverse as well. A short biography of Mr. Rangell tells us he holds a doctorate in piano and a while back recovered from a severe hand injury that sidelined his career for some seven years. I wondered at the time of the first review if sometimes tragedy couldn't be a blessing in disguise if one used it to one's advantage, in this case forcing Rangell into a style he might not have adopted earlier. Anyway, I also wondered back then if we would ever hear him return to recording Chopin (he had released the Mazurkas for the Dorian label in 2003). Now, he has returned, with a recital of some of Chopin's most-challenging piano works.

Rangell tells us in a booklet note that he chose the pieces in the recital for their "conceptual daring and architectural grandeur," pieces that "put completely to rest the dubious but long-held view of Chopin as the poetic miniaturist--and they provide a vivid and haunting intimation of what might have followed had Chopin lived longer." Fair enough, although Mr. Rangell's opinion still doesn't discount the idea that Chopin was one of the finest "poetic miniaturists" the world has ever known. He was that, indeed, yet, as Rangell contends, much more.

Anyway, leading off the program is the Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61, from 1846 the last of Chopin's long, extended-form pieces. It's a rather daring way to begin an album because it is not one of the composer's more-popular works. In fact, it's one of his most-difficult works, being in no way sentimental, melancholy, or even particularly Romantic. In fact, it's rather modern in its development of form over content, structure over melody. But the choice shows us that Mr. Rangell is not just a virtuosic pianist but one of intellect as well. This piece confirms Rangell's assertion that there is more to Chopin than mere sentiment; there is intellect involved as well.

Next, we get the little Nocturne in E-flat major, No. 2, Op. 55, from 1844, a fairly elaborate work considering its size. Here, Rangell demonstrates his lightness of touch and flowing style, a sweet, tender manner that eschews any hint of self-indulgent nostalgia.

After that is Chopin's Bolero, Op. 19, an early and oft-overlooked work from 1833. With Bolero, Rangell gets a chance to enjoy himself in a bit of showmanship. The piece is colorful, and Rangell isn't afraid to set his academic inclinations aside for a moment and give full rein to his virtuosic side. However, that doesn't mean he allows the piece to fall into anything bombastic; it's just clean, well-controlled fun.

Andrew Rangell
Then it's on to the Nouvelle Étude No. 1 in F minor, a piece from 1839 published posthumously. Rangell allows us to see into this little etude and discover its hidden delights. The coherence of the pianist's vision is such that the piece becomes quite hypnotic, gluing the listener to every note.

Rangell's includes three of Chopin's four Ballades on the program: No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47, and No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52. The first of the ballades comes off gracefully and poignantly under Rangell's guidance. Again, he displays a way of playing that seems to sort out every phrase and reduce it to its simplest and most-easily understandable form, while helping us appreciate the complexities of the piece all the more. Rangell's approach is never to exaggerate or aggrandize anything, yet makes us stop and say to ourselves, "Wait, I must listen to this. I've never heard it expressed so accurately and succinctly before."

The third and fourth ballades sound elegant, rhapsodic, and rapturous by turns. I've always enjoyed the third for its theme later adopted as "I'm always chasing rainbows," which Rangell treats with tender care. He shows an affection for these works that never softens them.

In addition, we get the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45, which Rangell describes as an "improvised meditation," with "Brahmsian textures...majesty and mystery." Under Rangell, this prelude has a dreamy, meditative quality to it that some pianists seem to overlook (well, to be fair, most pianists overlook the piece entirely). It's a delightful work all the way around, its melodies shining brilliantly in Rangell's hands.

Rangell ends the program with another Nocturne, this one No. 2 in E major, Op. 62. Throughout the nocturne, Rangell remains true to his convictions: that Chopin was no mere sentimental miniaturist but a composer of deep intellectual feeling.

In short, Rangall's performances never appear that of an academician simply playing the notes by rote. There is much feeling here, strong emotion, but well under control so as to demonstrate the composer's intentions all the better. It's a neat trick, stripping each work to its barest minimum with mathematical precision yet maintaining its poignancy and beauty. But that's Rangell: magisterial and magical.

Mr. Rangell produced the album, Tom Stephenson engineered it, and Brad Michel edited and mastered it for Steinway & Sons, recording the music at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts in July 2013. The sound of the Steinway Model D #586518 Rangell plays is about as lifelike as one could imagine. It joins the ranks the best piano recordings I've ever heard, in fact. Not only is the piano clear and true, the venue imparts a pleasant ambient bloom to the affair that makes you feel you're in the room with the soloist. Yet there is not so much reverberation that it drowns out the piano's rich tone and clarity, which remain resonant and transparent throughout, without ever sounding hard or edgy.


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

Nov 16, 2014

Ives: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Carter: Instances; Gershwin: An American in Paris. Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony. Seattle Symphony Media SSM1003.

Here's another live recording from Maestro Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony, this one covering several twentieth-century American works.

Morlot begins with the Second Symphony of Charles Ives (1874-1954). A lot of listeners have concerns with Ives's music, and I have to admit that I can take it or leave it. However, it always amuses me to listen to it because Ives often makes these things a game of "Name That Tune," with his references to so many bits and pieces from other composers. The Second Symphony is no different, quoting snippets of "Turkey in the Straw," "Long, Long Ago," "Camptown Races," "America the Beautiful," "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," and this and that from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, among others.

Ives wrote his Symphony No. 2 early in his career, somewhere between 1897 and 1901, although it never saw a premiere performance until 1951 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Indeed, a fine DG recording Bernstein later made with his old New York orchestra has rather spoiled me these past few decades, with Bernstein seeming to make Ives more palatable than recordings from most other conductors. For that matter, though, several conductors I've heard have also impressed me, most notably Bernard Herrmann and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Anyway, the Second Symphony under Morlot is fine, too. As I say, this early Ives work is pretty easy to take compared to some of the more-raucous pieces he would later produce. The Second Symphony is full of sweetly flowing melodies, and Morlot does a decent job of maintaining the rapturous qualities of the tunes. The symphony is a little unusual in that it adds a fifth movement to the conventional four, a slow Lento Maestoso before the final Allegro. This tends to give it even more of a grand Romantic feel, although, to be fair, Morlot doesn't play up its sentimental attributes quite as much as Bernstein does. Listeners may find this a plus or a minus.

It's in the second movement that we get the greatest number of musical allusions, and Morlot seems to have a good time with them. However, the conductor's style may be a tad too straightforward to reveal the full joy of the music. Again, Bernstein seems a bit freer with his rhythms and a touch more lyrical. And so it goes, with the finale under Morlot adding a zesty conclusion to the affair.

Next up is a brief piece, a world-premiere recording of Instances by American composer and two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner Elliott Carter (1908-2012). It would be Carter's last completed work, and as such it is the most-modern in structure and sound. I didn't find it particularly to my liking, but others will no doubt enjoy its rhythmic vitality, its intriguingly colorful interludes, and its various percussive effects.

Ludovic Morlot
Finally, we get the most-popular piece on the program: the symphonic poem An American in Paris by composer and pianist George Gershwin (1898-1938). Here, too, I'm afraid I have to admit that Bernstein is the superior interpreter on his Columbia (now Sony) recording with the New York Philharmonic. This is by no means a repudiation of Morlot, you understand; it's just that side by side, Bernstein communicates the greater energy, greater emotion, greater color and description. Morlot seems just a shade more reticent to let go. Still, Morlot has the measure of the music well enough, and those car honks at the opening do put us in the mood of big-city life. The sultry blues section in the middle also comes off well, the conductor displaying a good feeling for the idiom. For me, it was Morlot's best work on the disc, and the Seattle players don't let him down.

Dmitriy Lipay produced, engineered, and edited the album, which he and his team recorded live in concert at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington in June 2012 (Ives), February 2013 (Carter), and September 2011 (Gershwin). The live sound in the Ives work seems fairly distanced and spacious, the audience for the most part quiet. It presents a good concert-hall effect. The Carter piece appears closer up, the Gershwin in between. The only things that disrupt the effect of the music are the unwanted eruptions of applause that follow the first and third works on the disc. I mean, why go to all the trouble of keeping an audience as unobtrusive as possible throughout much of the music, only to have them disrupt our concentration at the end? Oh, well; otherwise, the sound is smooth and moderately well extended in terms of dynamics and frequency response in the closer-miked works, less so in the opening Ives piece.


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

Nov 13, 2014

Above and Beyond (CD review)

Music for Wind Band. Gerard Schwarz, "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. Naxos 8.573121.

Even though the musical sound of a wind band may be an acquired taste, when it's presented as well as Maestro Gerard Schwarz and "The President's Own" United States Marine Band offer it here, it's kind of hard to resist. Of course, it may help when most of the composers involved wrote the music directly for a wind band, yet that doesn't interfere with our enjoyment of several famous transcriptions and arrangements we find here in the music of Creston, Copland, Schwarz, Grainger, Rands, Barber, and Offenbach.

First, a word about the artists: American conductor Gerard Schwarz most folks probably recognize as the longtime Music Director of the Seattle Symphony (1985-2011). He has earned numerous awards over the years, made over a hundred record albums, and currently works with several all-star orchestras. The U.S. Marine Band, known as "The President's Own," is the oldest military band in the country, tracing its formation back to an act of Congress in 1798. They are also one of the best wind bands in the country. Or in the world, for that matter.

Now, a word about the only drawback in the recording: the sound. Naxos chose to record the album live in concert. Not a good idea. More about that in a moment.

It's the music that matters, and whether you like wind-band presentations or not, you'd have to admit that Schwarz and company do up these numbers proud. We start with the Celebration Overture, a 1955 work written for wind band by American composer Paul Creston (1906-1985). I liked Schwarz's insistence that the piece sound both rhythmic and melodious and not just loud, as some marching bands might play it. The piece has some sweet inner beauty (the middle section particularly), which Schwarz captures nicely.

Next, it's Emblems by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), a work the American composer wrote in 1964 on commission for the College Band Directors National Association. One hears a brief quotation from the hymn "Amazing Grace" in the piece, a pleasing touch. Otherwise, it's a pretty simple, straightforward work, one that Copland said wouldn't "overstrain the technical abilities" of young musicians. It's pleasant enough music in a modern vein, and Schwarz carries it off with seemingly a minimum of effort. The band plays well for him.

After that is a piece by the conductor himself, Above and Beyond, written in 2012 especially for the Marine Band. Schwarz wanted to write something "slow and expressive," as he puts it, a real adagio for winds that he knew the Marine Band could pull off. While I personally found it a bit on the dull side, even when it gets rambunctious toward the end, there's no denying its expressive and atmospheric moods. And who can doubt that Schwarz plays his own music as well as anyone?

Then we get the longest work on the program, Frederick Fennell's edition of Australian-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy, a fifteen-minute piece in six movements that the composer wrote for the American Bandmasters Association in 1937. The Grainger work is the centerpiece of the program for good reason. It's very good, indeed. Based on folk songs Grainger collected, these "musical wildflowers" as he described them are wonderfully infectious, charming, jaunty, melancholic, and tuneful by turns, and Maestro Schwarz appears to take great affection in them. His manner with the band is gentle and persuasive, making the pieces as touching as I've heard them.

Gerard Schwarz
Following the Grainger piece is Ceremonial by English composer Bernard Rands (b. 1934). It's rather dark and forbidding compared to the other music on the disc, yet it possesses a captivating, pulsating vigor that Schwarz realizes quite well. Even though I had never heard the work before, I can see how some conductors might allow its repetitions to get monotonous. Schwarz never does.

Then it's on to Medea's Dance of Vengeance and Commando March by American Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Both of Barber's works are enjoyable, particularly the first one from his ballet. You might not think music transcribed for band could be as gentle in places as this is, and Schwarz effectively plays up the dramatic aspects as well, creating more than sufficient excitement.

The program concludes fittingly with the Marines' Hymn, arranged by Donald Hunsberger and based on a tune, interestingly, by Jacques Offenbach. Here, the audience, generally reticent in their applause, finally come a little more alive, clapping along a tad more enthusiastically throughout the brief piece.

Maj. Jason K. Fettig produced and MGySgt. Karl J. Jackson engineered and edited the album, which they recorded in concert at The Music Center at Strathmore, Bethesda, Maryland in March 2012. It's in the nature of wind-band music that the sound is going to be somewhat deep and mellow, but here it's not quite so. In order to minimize audience noise, the engineers recorded it fairly close, making the winds sound clearer but drier than we usually hear them. Still, there seems a veil over the sonics, and I would have liked a dash more hall ambience; but it doesn't happen. Dynamics are fairly wide, with decent impact, while frequency extremes appear limited. Triangles and other percussion seem relatively weak and the deep bass a little disappointing.

Ah, and then there is the audience, of which one is always aware despite the close miking. Then, too, they clap in a curiously lackadaisical manner at the end of each selection but the last. Although I know a lot of home listeners enjoy live recordings and the sound of an audience around them, I find it intrusive and distracting.


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

Nov 12, 2014

Theofanidis: Rainbow Body (CD review)

Works by Theofanidis, Barber, Copland, and Higdon. Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80596.

In 2001, when the Atlanta Symphony's then-new conductor Robert Spano took over the orchestra, he selected for this 2003 release four American works, two old and two newer. Frankly, the two newer compositions pale by comparison to the older pieces, but at least they bring a modicum of fresh, new light to an otherwise drab contemporary musical scene.

The two classics are Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1 (all right, perhaps not an all-out classic, but a fine older work, dating from 1936), and Aaron Copland's Suite from Appalachian Spring, 1944, definitely a classic. Interestingly, it's the Copland piece that sounds the most inventive and the most inspired, and Spano imbues it with a soft, bucolic charm. If the Atlanta Symphony doesn't always sound as smooth and refined as we have more recently heard them, we might perhaps attribute the concern to Maestro Spano's having just taken the reins.

The two newer works are, first, Christopher Theofanidis's Rainbow Body, which the composer says he wrote while inspired by his listening to the music of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Be that as it may, the piece is mostly moody and atmospheric, building leisurely and incrementally, he says, to the "lingering reverberations one might hear in an old cathedral." Fair enough, although on first listening it left me singularly unimpressed. Subsequent listening has proven kinder, so maybe I'm getting to used to it. Still, I wouldn't consider it a future classic in the league of the Barber and Copland pieces.

Robert Spano
The second newer work on the disc is more immediately accessible, Jennifer Higdon's Blue Cathedral. Do you see a thematic element working here with both Higdon and Theofanidis dealing with cathedrals? The Curtis Institute of Music commissioned Ms. Higdon to write the music for their seventy-fifth anniversary. Her idea was to use a cathedral as a metaphor for learning, a new beginning, a place of knowledge, a doorway to another world. Indeed, the music does convey the feeling of a large open cathedral, and in some passages it effectively paints the tone picture of a house of worship and education. I quite enjoyed the music and Spano's handling of it. Both newer pieces are brief at about twelve or thirteen minutes each, yet I doubt we'd want them any longer.

Telarc's sound is characteristically open and airy, with pretty good inner detail and a wide stereo spread. Uncharacteristically, however, the sound appears a bit underpowered in the bass and slightly hard in the upper midrange. No matter. Looking at it optimistically, the music doesn't require much bass, except for some of the more bombastic sections of the Barber symphony, and the upper midrange hardness helps clarify the definition.

Overall, I can't say the album entirely appealed to me, but the Copland and Higdon performances are worthy of repeat listening.


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

Nov 10, 2014

Karayev: The Seven Beauties (CD review)

Ballet suites: The Seven Beauties; The Path of Thunder. Dmitry Yablonsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.573122.

Here's another composer of whom I knew little until encountering this disc. Kara Karayev (1918-1982), born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a noted Azerbaijani composer of the Soviet era and one of Dmitry Shostakovich's most-distinguished pupils. If you've seen his name spelled Gara Garayev or Qara Qarayev, same guy. He wrote over 110 pieces of music, including operas, symphonies, cantatas, marches, ballets, chamber, and solo pieces. The present disc contains two of his most-melodic and most-dramatic works, suites from his ballets The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder, performed by Maestro Dmityry Yablonsky and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

First up on the program is the ballet suite from The Seven Beauties, which Karayev wrote in 1947-48 to mark the 800th anniversary of classical poet Nizami Ganjavi. Karayev based the story on themes from Ganjavi's poem "Seven beauties," written in 1197 and having to do with visions of seven beautiful women, a young Shah, love at first sight, a power-hungry vizier, mistaken identities, duplicitous dealings, and the usual such melodramatic action.

Because The Seven Beauties is a ballet and tells a story, it makes the musical segments of the suite rather episodic. We would expect that. And because the Soviet censors of the day would rather that all music remain stuck in the nineteenth century, we don't find a lot of avant-garde creativity or experimentation involved. It's all pretty conventional, actually. Yet it's also quite tuneful, lush and rhapsodic in places and a little old fashioned. "The Seven Portraits" probably come off best, with Maestro Yablonsky creating some delicate, some robust, some romantic, some joyful, and some mournful pictures of the ladies involved.

The Path of Thunder is a more-ambitious ballet Karayev wrote in 1957, inspired by a novel by the South African writer and political commentator Peter Abrahams. The ballet, a discourse on racial prejudice, tells the story of a prohibited love between a white girl and a black teacher. In 1967 it won the Lenin Prize.

Dmitry Yablonsky
With The Path of Thunder we enter an entirely different sonic and emotional landscape. Karayev noted that in creating the music he tried to "use characteristic intonations and rhythms of African folklore." Here, we also find hints of Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Prokofiev, making the music sound less old fashioned than his previous ballet. However, the censors were still alive and well in Soviet Russia at the time, so don't expect too much in the way of overt modernism. Karayev scored the ballet richly, and under Yablonsky it all seems most-elegantly phrased. In fact, this later ballet appears more atmospheric and evocative than the earlier one, with Yablonsky imparting an appropriately passionate quality to the affairs of the two lovers. The music alternates between sweetness and turbulence, the conductor negotiating the turns smoothly and effectively.

Even though I admit to not having heard these works performed before and therefore have nothing by which to judge their performance, I can't think of how any other conductor or orchestra could play them any better. Moreover, it should probably go without my saying that the Royal Philharmonic plays them with grace and precision, reminding us once again that they remain one of the world's top orchestras. The two works may not be masterpieces, but they are entertaining, each in its own way, making this Naxos release a disc to consider.

Producer and editor Andrew Walton and engineer Mike Clements recorded the suites at the Blackheath Concert Halls, Blackheath, London, in September 2012. I was more familiar with engineer Mike Clements than I was with Kara Karayev, thanks to Clements's many fine recordings for EMI. He does no less with this Naxos release. The sound is among the best I've heard from Naxos in a long time. It has a realistic warmth and presence at a moderate distance, with fairly natural impact and dynamics, and a pleasantly mild bloom around the instruments. Perhaps it lacks in ultimate midrange transparency, but the slight softness in the sound does tend to make it sound more lifelike. Orchestral depth appears limited, as do the highest highs and lowest lows. Still, it's a fine concert-hall presentation, and there's no beating that percussion.


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

Nov 9, 2014

Chopin: Preludes (SACD review)

Ingrid Fliter, piano. Linn Records CKD 475.

The last time I reviewed a disc from Argentinian-born pianist Ingrid Fliter, she was playing Chopin's piano concertos and doing a very good job with them. She is above all a most sensitive and elegant pianist, and as such she makes the perfect interpreter of music by the piano's finest composer. This time out she tackles Chopin's twenty-four Preludes and does her usual splendid job with them.

Polish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) originally published his twenty-four Preludes, Op. 28, in 1839, writing each little piano piece in one of the twenty-four keys. Up until his time, the musical term "prelude" usually meant an introductory work, but Chopin's preludes are individual, self-contained, self-standing pieces; they aren't necessarily introductions to anything else, unless it's the next prelude in the set (more on that in a minute). Interestingly, Chopin himself never played more than a few of them at a time in concert, whereas today it is common for a pianist to present the complete opus; there aren't more than about forty minutes' worth of them, after all.

Ms. Fliter, born in Buenos Aires, now divides her time between Europe and the U.S. In the past decade or more, she has become something of a specialist in Chopin, having already released three well-received Chopin albums before this one and winning the Silver Medal in 2000 at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Her time and devotion to Chopin's music pay off once again in the present album.

Ms. Fliter plays the set in the intended order, starting with the Prelude in C major, which Chopin marks as Agitato. It is here that Ms Fliter makes it known that she will play these things the way she personally sees them. Although the opening prelude is very brief, under a minute, she injects it with a quiet, though still appropriately agitated, longing. It sets the tone for the rest of the pieces, Ms. Fliter lending them a delicate touch.

Since the time Chopin wrote them, there has been some discussion among critics as to whether the set is really a collection of separate and disconnected piano pieces or whether Chopin meant for the entire set to be subtly united, forming one unified whole. It's hard to see the associations in most readings, but in Ms. Fliter's hands the musical segments do seem more related to one another than ever before. The textures seem lighter than usual, and the pieces seem to run from one to another more seamlessly. Whether the themes really are connected is another matter; yet under Ms. Fliter the consistency of mood and tone hold them together. It's one of the few times I could listen to the whole set comfortably in one sitting.

The Prelude in E minor sounds especially beguiling, wistful and bewitching; on a side note, it was played at Chopin's funeral. The well-known Prelude in A major seems more relaxed than we normally hear it, leading to a beautifully flowing Prelude in F sharp minor. There is no sense of stopping and restarting anew here; instead, it's as if each prelude were an introduction to the next.

And so it goes. Among my favorites are three quick works in succession: the Preludes in C sharp minor, B major, and G sharp minor, each piece breezy, elegant, and thrilling by turns. Then we have probably the most popular of the Preludes, the "Raindrop" in D flat major, rendered by Ms. Fliter in leisurely fashion, no winter downpour but a light, sweet spring shower. Even the darker middle section carries less menace than we customarily hear, which some listeners may fault but which again helps tie the individual works better together.

I also loved Ms. Fliter's readings of the enchanting Prelude in A flat major, the calming Prelude in F major, and the imposing Prelude in D minor that concludes the set. Overall, this is one of the best, most-thoughtful, most-cohesive realizations of the Op. 28 Preludes I've heard. It may not carry the emotional weight or drama of some of its rivals, but Ms. Fliter makes up for it in her poetic sensitivity.

Chopin would later write two more preludes, which Ms. Fliter does not include. Rather, she fills out the disc with five mazurkas (Op. 17 No. 4, Op. 17 No. 2, Op. 63 No. 3, Op. 50 No. 3, and Op. 6 No. 3) and two nocturnes (Op. 9 No. 3 and Op. 27 No. 2). Ms. Fliter makes the mazurkas appear airy, playful, and, eventually, epic; the nocturnes dreamily evocative.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the music at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK in June 2014 for two-channel and multichannel SACD and two-channel CD playback. In the two-channel SACD format to which I listened, the piano sound is big, full, and warm, with firm impact. A pleasantly expansive ambient bloom lends to it an air of realism; it also produces a slight softness in the piano tone that enhances the music nicely.


To listen to a selection from this album, click here:

Nov 7, 2014

Masterpieces in Miniature (SACD review)

Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony; Yuja Wang, piano. SFS Media 821936-0060-2.

First off, I have to admit a bias: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the San Francisco Symphony has always been my hometown orchestra, so to speak. I remember first hearing them while I was kid back in the early Fifties, a school (or Sunday school) outing to one of the symphony's annual Nutcracker specials, if memory serves me right. In any case, even though the Bay Area has a multitude of fine orchestras, I have always considered the San Francisco Symphony the king of the hill, one of the greatest orchestras ever. Maybe that's why I felt my opinion vindicated when a few years ago Gramophone magazine listed the San Francisco Symphony among the ten best orchestras in the world. Yeah, well, I could have told them that.

In Masterpieces in Miniature Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and his orchestra present twelve short favorite pieces by twelve familiar composers, each of the pieces a polished little gem under the conductor and ensemble. Tilson Thomas imbues them with energy, subtlety, refinement, and grace as the occasion demands, and the orchestra plays them with vigor, nuance, culture, and élan always. Together, the conductor and orchestra provide a polish and sparkle to make even the most timeworn of these warhorses sound fresh again.

Since I haven't the time or the energy to comment on every piece of music on the program, I'll just mention what they are and point out a few favorites. The disc includes Henry Litolff's Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4, with Yuja Wang, piano; Gustav Mahler's Blumine; Gabriel Fauré's Pavane; Claude Debussy's La Plus que lente; Franz Schubert's Entr' acte No.3 from Rosamunde; Charles Ives and Henry Brant's The Alcotts from A Concord Symphony; Sergei Rachmaninov's Vocalise; Antonin Dvorák's Legend No. 6; Jean Sibelius's Valse triste; Frederick Delius's On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; Edvard Grieg's The Last Spring; and Leo Delibes's Cortége de Bacchus from his ballet Sylvia.

Pianist Yuja Wang gets things off to a rollicking good start in Litolff's Scherzo, taken at a pace that might have left some ensembles behind. Not here. The music comes off in a sprightly, witty fashion, and the only thing that disappointed me was that Wang doesn't appear on any more of the program's selections.

Tilson Thomas shows his skills as a seasoned Mahler interpreter in Blumine, which the composer probably wrote originally as a stand-alone piece, then later incorporated into his First Symphony, only later cut. It works best as we hear it here, vaguely melancholic and atmospheric, with a wonderful trumpet solo.

Under Tilson Thomas, Faure's Pavane flows gracefully and stylishly along; Schubert's Entr'acte is as beautiful and lyrical as one could want; Rachmaninov's Vocalise for orchestra sounds expectedly enchanting; Sibelius's Valse triste comes across appropriately sad and wistful; and Delibes's Cortege de Bacchus seems almost Elgarian, even though it predates Elgar by some years.

Anybody's recording of Delius's On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring has stiff competition from its original advocate, Sir Thomas Beecham, yet Tilson Thomas manages pretty well to convey its sensitive changes of color, expression, and inflection. Otherwise, the music can merely come off as repetitious and meandering. Despite the pleasing character and vitality of some of the other pieces on the disc, this one touched me the most with its delicate beauty.

Producer Jack Vad and engineers Roni Jiles, Gus Pollek, Dann Thompson, and Jonathon Stevens recorded all the works live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California. They recorded "The Alcotts" in 96 kHz/24-bit audio in February 2010 and the rest in PCM 192 kHz/24-bit audio in September 2013 and May 2014. What's more, they recorded the music for hybrid two-channel (regular CD and SACD) and multichannel (SACD) playback from an SACD. I listened in two-channel SACD.

It's all a rather elaborate recording considering the engineers captured the resultant sound before a live audience. Fortunately, the audience is pretty quiet throughout the performances; the only offset is that the engineers had to record the orchestra somewhat closely, so we don't get quite as much sense of place, environment, or dimensionality as we might like. There is, however, just enough hall resonance to make everything sound fairly natural, with no jagged edges, forwardness, or brightness. Stereo spread is understandably wide, the dynamics and impact appear strong. The frequency response covers most of the spectrum nicely (although the top and bottom ends seem slightly rolled off), and the overall clarity is fine despite some softness in the presentation. An inevitable eruption of unnecessary applause occurs only after the final number.


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

Nov 5, 2014

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 4-6 (CD review)

Also, Triple Concerto, BWV 1044. Trevor Pinnock, the English Concert. DG Archiv 474 220-2.

The disc's excellent little accompanying booklet note mentions that these 1982 recordings were among the first Bach Brandenburg Concertos recorded using period instruments. Well, close: They were actually about the fourth or fifth period recordings, Nikolaus Haroncourt's 1960's recordings probably being among the first. Be that as it may, Pinnock and his band play the pieces as well as anybody before or since, and it's always good to see them at mid price.

The hallmarks of Pinnock's interpretations have always been their vivacity and liveliness, which at the time Pinnock made them critics attributed to the relatively fast tempos of the outer movements, tempos that have now become commonplace among not only the period-instruments crowd but with modern-instrument enthusiasts as well. Moreover, to be fair, Pinnock doesn't lead them any faster than many more-recent interpreters. In addition to just playing at lively tempos, though, Pinnock offers well-judged renderings that sound well balanced and well played. Indeed, Simon Standage's violin virtuosity alone seems worthy of the disc's price. It's also helpful to have Pinnock's 1984 reading of Bach's Triple Concerto, BWV 1044, along with the Brandenburgs Nos. 4-6, too.

The point of interest for a lot of potential buyers, however--and there must be a few people around who haven't already bought these recordings in one of their previous incarnations--may be the early digital sound. One can look at it in two ways, depending upon one's playback system. Either the sonics are wonderfully clean, light, and transparent, opening up textures never heard before; or they are bright and hard, lacking weight, and opening up textures never wanted before. I must admit that on first playing the recording it sounded a bit bright to my ears, but then by comparison everything else I put on sounded dull, clouded, and over-reverberant. Comparisons aren't always what they're cracked up to be.

I still don't think the recorded sound is as natural as that provided by Pinnock on his later recording with the European Brandenburg Ensemble on Avie, which is now my favorite set of Brandenburgs all the way around, or by Gustav Leonhardt and his all-star crew in their 1976 period-instruments performances, now remastered by Sony Seon. Nor do I think Pinnock's earlier interpretations are any more lively or loving than Jeanne Lamon's with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra on a Tafelmusik (or Sony) set, Jordi Savall's with the Le Concert des Nations on Astree, or Jeannette Sorrell's with Apollo's Fire on Avie.

Nevertheless, the earlier Pinnock discs have the advantage of coming in at a mid price, which is something, although you have to buy two CD's to get all six concertos since the folks at Archiv only offer them either separately or in a big box set with the four Bach Orchestral Suites. And to further complicate matters, since I wrote this review some years ago, DG now offer the first three and final three concertos minus anything else on separate discs they issued in 2011. Oh, well. Whatever the disc configuration, these performances are still worth investigating.


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

Nov 3, 2014

Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (CD review)

Also, Invocacion y Danza; Fantasia para un gentilhombre; Falla: Homenaje; Danza del Molinero. Milos Karadaglic, guitar; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, London Philharmonic Orchestra. DG/Mercury Classics B0020039-02.

Spanish composer and pianist Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) wrote his Concierto de Aranjuez in 1939, and it has since become probably the most-popular guitar concerto in the world. As such, it is almost a written law that every classical guitarist worth his or her salt must record it at one time or another. In 2013 it became Montenegrin guitarist Milos Karadaglic's turn. Milos joins the ranks of such heavyweights as Narciso Yepes (HDTT, DG, Decca), Angel Romero (Mercury), Pepe Romero (Philips), Carlos Bonell (Decca), John Williams (RCA), Xuefei Yang (Warner), David Russell (Telarc), Julian Bream (RCA), Sharon Isbin (Virgin), Christopher Parkening (EMI), and about 800 other classical guitarists who have given us excellent performances of the work. Fortunately, Milos holds his own, and he will not disappoint his fans.

Milos's approach to the Concierto is notably romantic. Not that it's any slower or more sentimental than other player's have taken it; it just sounds a bit lusher and more luxuriant than most. There's nothing wrong with this approach; it rather fits the mood of the music. What Milos does best of all is to create a fine Spanish atmosphere for the music. We get a feeling for the ornate patios, sunlit terraces, and redolent gardens of the Aranjuez palace. What he does next best is present us with a lovely Adagio, haunting and evocative. This may not be the most thrilling or lively account of Rodrigo's work, but it is sweet and sensitive, and I think that's exactly what most folks would want from it, especially Milos's followers.

Next come two pieces for solo guitar by Spanish composer and pianist Manuel de Falla (1876-1946): "Homenaje," a homage to Claude Debussy, and "Danza del Molinero" from El sombrero de tres picos. Milos lends them an appropriately Spanish flavor, still well within the Romantic tradition but taking up the inflections and nuances of the landscape more than capably.

Then it's back to Rodrigo, starting with an appropriate transition, the "Invocacion y danza," a solo homage to Falla. It's one of the best pieces on the program, with Milos appearing greatly to savor the color and shadings of the music.

Milos Karadaglic
The album concludes with Rodrigo's Fantasia para un gentilhombre ("Fantasy for a gentleman"), which the composer wrote on commission for the great Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia and which Segovia premiered in 1958. It's essentially another concerto for guitar and orchestra, this time courtly and stylish, drawing its tunes from the seventeenth-century Spanish composer Gaspar Sanz. Milos handles it in a refined and stately manner, filling it with rich detail, without quite the romantic countenance he conveyed in the Concierto. The third-movement dances have a particularly zesty bearing to them.

Maestro Nezet-Seguin and the London Philharmonic know enough to stay out of Milos's way, lending a solid support without ever overshadowing the soloist's work.

Producer Sid McLauchlan and engineer Rainer Maillard recorded the music at Abbey Road Studios, Studio 1, London (Concierto, Fantasia) and Nikodemus-Kirche, Berlin (Homenaje, "Danza," "Invocacion") in August and September 2013. The recordists have captured a pleasingly agreeable sound, warm and comforting. In the orchestral pieces, the orchestra appears well spread across the front speakers, with the soloist centered in front of them. In terms of dimensionality, it isn't a particularly realistic sound, though, the guitar a bit larger than life and the orchestra somewhat lacking in depth. The transients are pretty soft, too, and in the solo numbers there's a fairly resonant environment, so don't expect audiophile-quality sonics. But, as I say, it's a pleasant enough sound, easy on the ear and matching Milos's romantic interpretation of the music.

Finally, and not that it matters, the folks at DG have chosen to include fully ten pictures of Milos on the packaging and in the accompanying booklet, plus a shot of his hands. And although Joaquin Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla are the featured composers on the program, there is nary a mention of them on the jewel-box cover. Just sayin'.


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