Dec 29, 2014

Stir It Up - The Music of Bob Marley (UltraHD review)

Monty Alexander; Jamaican Reggae 'Ridim' Section; The Gumption Band; USA Jazz Rhythm Section. FIM LIM UHD 0770 LE.

On this remastered FIM/LIM (First Impression Music/Lasting Impression Music) audiophile disc, Monty Alexander plays the music of Bob Marley. What do you mean, Who's Monty Alexander? Well, at least you recognize Bob Marley. Let me go back into my old teacher mode again and annoy those of you already in the know: Monty Alexander is a Jamaican-born jazz pianist who has been performing for some fifty-odd years. Bob Marley, of course, is the Jamaican-born King of Reggae, who in his relatively short lifetime became an internationally famous singer, songwriter, and guitarist.

What I didn't know about either artist is that they were both born in Jamaica within a year apart, and that while Marley became a superstar with some fifteen albums to his credit, Alexander has been performing longer and recorded over five times as many albums (seventy-six of them since 1969). The Alexander album under review originally appeared in 1999 under the Telarc label, and the folks at FIM just recently remastered it.

On the album, Alexander does jazz interpretations of a dozen of Marley's most-familiar tunes. OK, but probably the first questions that come to one's mind are Why, and who will it please? Marley fans may not want somebody else tinkering with their favorite music, and Alexander fans may not want the jazz man messing around in Jamaican reggae.

Fortunately, all is well. Most of this jazz-reggae fusion comes off pretty nicely, even if it isn't the best of either world. Personally, I'd still rather hear Marley done by Marley. Nevertheless, jazz is jazz, and Alexander's laid-back, straight-ahead, easy-listening jazz style falls sweetly on the ear. The fact that Alexander's renditions of Marley may appeal more to Alexander's fans (or jazz fans in general) than to Marley's fans (or reggae fans in general) we'll just have to leave alone. The music on the album is what it is: essentially jazz. Understand that going in.

A number of fine musicians back up Alexander in the rhythm section, including Dwight Dawes, keyboards; Robert Angus, guitar; Trevor Mckenzie, bass; Glen Browne, bass; Rolando Wilson, drums; Desmond Jones, percussion; Derek DiCenzo, guitar; Hassan J.J. Wiggins, bass; Troy Davis, drums; and guest artists Steve Turre, trombone and conch shell, and Sly Dunbar on "Could You Be Loved." Be aware, though, there is no singing involved. Alexander is a jazz pianist, and he's the star of the show. While not having Marley's words may disappoint his followers, Alexander's pianism at least partly makes up for it. These are not mere cover items, after all, but jazz renditions of Marley's work.

The twelve songs on the album are "So Jah She," "Nesta (He Touched the Sky)," "Jammin," "Crisis,"
"Could You Be Loved," "The Heathen," "No Woman No Cry," "Running Away," "Is This LOVE?," "Stir It Up," "Kaya," and "I Shot the Sheriff." Incidentally, the "Could You Be Loved" track is the extended remix featuring Sly Dunbar, while the album omits the regular version of the song.

We find two good fusions on the album. First, there's obviously the fusion jazz and reggae, which Alexander executes with a mellifluent sense of improvisation while maintaining a semblance of reggae beat. Second, there's the fusion of Alexander's piano and the players around him, whose interplay of instruments is delightful throughout the program.

Monty Alexander
Favorites? Sure. I enjoyed "Nesta" for its mournful yet uplifting spirit; "Jammin" and "Could You Be Loved" for their full-ahead jamming jazz style; "Crisis" for its oddly reassuring, calming influence; and "Is This LOVE?" "Kaya," and "Stir It Up" for their more-obvious Jamaican jazz influences.

Finally, let me remind potential buyers again that this is primarily a jazz album, not a reggae album, and Bob Marley's music is simply a starting point for Monty Alexander's own riffs, rhythms, and free forms. As such, it works fine. But if you want Marley, buy Marley.

And, yeah, there are a couple of selections I found a little too syrupy for my taste, neither very jazzy nor very reggae. Yet even these are relaxing and easy on the ears, and for this reason may even appeal to wider audience than the other tracks on the disc.

Producers Glen Browne and Robert Woods and engineers Jack Renner and Robert Friedrich recorded the music in October 1998 for Telarc Records at Avatar Studio, Studio A, New York City. FIM producer Winston Ma and Five/Four Productions engineer Robert Friedrich remastered the album in 2014 for FIM/LIM using the 32-bit Ultra High Definition mastering format and PureFlection processing.

One hears a very quick transient response, with crisp articulation throughout the set. Also, there is the expected good bass and treble response, with deep, tight lows and extended highs. The stereo spread is not quite as wide as on most pop recordings but remains more realistically centered just in from the left and right speakers. Then, there's a nice midrange transparency and an overall smoothness that's hard not to like. It's a realistic presentation and one worthy of FIM's audiophile remastering; whether it's worth the extra money over the standard Telarc issue may depend on how much you already like the album or how much in terms of price the absolute best sound means to you.

Like other FIM/LIM products, this one comes packaged in a glossy hardcover book format, with notes and pictures bound to the inside and the disc housed in a static-proof inner liner, further enclosed in a fastened paper sleeve.


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

Dec 28, 2014

Copland: In the Beginning (CD review)

Also, Four Motets; Barber: Reincarnations and other works. Sally Bruce-Payne, mezzo-soprano; Ben Parry, Dunedin Consort. Linn Records BKD 117.

You're probably wondering what the Dunedin Consort, a Baroque choral and instrumental ensemble based in Edinburgh, Scotland, is doing singing the music of two twentieth-century American composers, Copland and Barber. Good question. The way the program notes describe the situation: "Both Copland and Barber, in their settings for unaccompanied chorus, had an instinctive feel for the human voice, a natural gift for word setting, and a pure style of writing that rarely, if ever, obscured its literary dimension." So, for a musically dedicated choral group like the Dunedin Consort, the real question is, Why not do Copland and Barber?

Anyway, we get several works on the album for unaccompanied chorus, two from Copland and a few more from Barber, things getting under way with the appropriately named In the Beginning by Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Written in 1947, it's a choral motet with soprano soloist, inspired by the first chapter of Genesis from the King James Version of the Bible. Although it is probably not among Copland's most well-known works, many critics consider it among his best. Copland wanted the piece sung in a "gentle manner," which is exactly what director Ben Parry and his Consort do. Still, it's not so gentle that it excludes any life or liveliness. This is a vibrant, rhythmic, uplifting performance that commands respect and admiration from start to finish. The Dunedin singers sound crisply articulate yet convey much feeling for the music. The soloist, Sally Bruce-Payne, sounds fresh and alert, with a beautiful vocal tone. In fact, everyone involved with this sixteen-minute production does an outstanding job, including Parry, who never rushes the music but lets it unfold naturally and comfortably.

Next, we get Reincarnations, choral compositions for mixed chorus by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), a work he completed in 1940, followed by several other Barber songs. Reincarnations comprise three "contemporary madrigals," in this case English adaptations of early Irish poetry. Then, there are musical selections adapted from the writing of other British poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, concluding with Barber's 1967 choral arrangement of his own very popular Adagio for Strings, set to the words of the "Agnus Dei." Under Parry and his Consort, they sound expressive and Romantic, qualities Barber would exhibit throughout his musical life.

Dunedin Consort
Lastly, we find more of Copland's compositions, Four Motets, written early in the composer's career, 1921, during his student days. Copland wouldn't allow their publication until fifty years after he wrote them, saying, "Perhaps people want to know what I was doing as a student. The style is not really yet mine." Nevertheless, they are quite lovely, joyful and pleasing, and the Dunedin Consort performs them lovingly.

Producer Ben Turner and producer-engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the music at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, UK in October 1999. Linn Records originally released the album in 2000 and rereleased it in 2014. Capturing the natural sound of the human voice, especially in chorus, is among the hardest things for a recording engineer to do. Often, vocals come off too bright, forward, hard, or edgy. Maybe that's OK for a pop album, where you simply want the soloist or backup singers to come across as clearly as possible, but it doesn't work as well for a classical album where listeners expect the sound to remind them of actual concert-hall experiences. Moreover, listeners are probably more aware of what human voices sound like in reality than they are of musical instruments. So if the vocal tones aren't quite right, they become glaring inconsistencies in a recording.

Happily, the folks at Linn get it mostly right. The voices, singly or in chorus, sound lifelike, smooth, rounded, yet detailed. There is not much brightness or edginess here except in a few of the loudest passages. A mild hall resonance adds to the accuracy of the presentation.


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

Dec 24, 2014

Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross (CD review)

Jeno Jando, piano. Naxos 8.573313.

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross at the request of a priest to mark Good Friday, and Haydn published it in 1787. The title references the seven brief phrases spoken by Jesus on the cross, as the words appear in the four Gospels of the Bible. Along with an introduction and an "Earthquake" conclusion, they comprise nine movements, each slow, thoughtful, and reflective.

But here's the thing: Haydn wrote the music initially as a meditation for orchestra, for listeners to hear as the Bishop descended from the pulpit to pray. Later, Haydn arranged the piece for string quartet and then as an oratorio for chorus and orchestra. More important for our present considerations, however, he approved an arrangement for keyboard, which Hungarian pianist Jeno Jando plays here. Jando has had considerable experience with the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, having recorded all of the piano sonatas and many of the piano concertos of all three composers. His recording of The Seven Last Words does bear a certain stamp of authority.

The movements adhere to the following plan:

Introduzione in D minor - Maestoso ed adagio
Sonata I ("Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt" or "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do") - Largo
Sonata II ("Hodie mecum eris in paradiso" or "Today you will be in paradise") - Grave e cantabile
Sonata III ("Mulier, ecce filius tuus" or "Woman, behold your son") - Grave
Sonata IV ("Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me" or "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") - Largo
Sonata V ("Sitio" or "I thirst") - Adagio
Sonata VI ("Consummatum est" or "It is finished") - Lento
Sonata VII ("In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum" or "Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit") - Largo
Il terremoto ("The earthquake") - Presto e con tutta la forza

Now, I confess I am probably not the best person to judge Jando's performance because I have never heard the work done on piano; I have only heard the original orchestral version and the quartet arrangement, with a slight preference for the quartet sound. Moreover, by comparison to these other versions, Jando's interpretation and playing seem to me a tad more scholarly and a pinch less poignant. Nevertheless, I found Jando's handling of the piano version still has an abundance of charms.

Jeno Jando
The Seven Last Words is one of those pieces that is at once highly spiritual--mystical and uplifting--and popular, too. That is, it appeals to those of a Christian religious persuasion and equally to the general public regardless of religious bent. For this reason, Jando emphasizes both the mysterious, transcendent qualities of the music as well as its more tuneful, lyrical, melodic aspects.

Although Jando conveys an appropriately solemn tone, however, I still missed the warmer, lusher, more comforting sound of the orchestral and quartet versions of the piece. I suppose this is only natural for a person not used to the sparser, sparer sound of the single instrument. Yet even here, Jando uses the piano as well as possible to replicate the larger piece, especially in his treatment of contrasting tempos and dynamics, all the while communicating the music on a more-intimate scale.

As I say, Jando's manner may appear somewhat academic as opposed to more red-blooded; still, there is no question his playing is graceful and elegant, with phrases cleanly laid out and affectionately communicated. Yes, the orchestral version in particular strikes me as more dramatic than Jando's realization, but one might expect that from the larger forces involved. Let's just say that Jando's rendering of the work is illuminating--lighter and in some ways maybe more introspective than the bigger-scaled productions. It's certainly worth a listen.

Producer Ibolya Toth and engineer Janos Bohus recorded the music at Phoenix Studio, Diosd, Hungary in July 2013. The miking seems a little close, so we get an exceptionally clear piano sound; yet it's not so close as make the instrument appear ten or twelve feet wide. There is also a modest studio bloom that enhances the sound, making it resonantly rich and plush. Happily, perhaps because of the miking distance involved, the ambient room reverberation does not impart any undue softness to the sound, leaving it vibrant, full bodied, and pleasantly transparent.


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

Dec 22, 2014

J.S. Bach: Concertos for Oboe and Oboe d'amore (CD review)

Gonzalo X Ruiz, baroque oboes; Monica Huggett, Portland Baroque Orchestra. Avie Records AV2324.

Here's the thing: Nobody knows for sure if Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote any concertos for oboe; all original manuscripts are missing. But musical scholars believe that he probably did, later transcribing them for harpsichord. Thus, what we have on this disc are three concertos for oboe and one for oboe d'amore reconstructed from harpsichord concertos. Interesting: concertos reconstructed from what are probably transcriptions. I guess it's what makes musical scholarship so fascinating.

The star of the show is Gonzalo X. Ruiz, who is among America's premier period-instruments oboists. For the past twenty years he has been a member of the Portland Baroque Orchestra, and he has performed as principal soloist with most of the world's leading baroque orchestras, including Philharmonia Baroque, Ensemble Sonnerie, The English Concert, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and many others. He has made dozen of albums, been nominated for a Grammy, appeared just about everywhere, been appointed to the faculty of The Juilliard School, and taught at Oberline Conservatory, the Longy School, Yale, Harvard, and Indiana Universities. He's also an expert in reed design, and some of his work is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the present album Ruiz appears as soloist with the Portland Baroque Orchestra and Monica Huggett, Artistic Director and First Violin. Things begin with the Concerto for oboe in G minor, BWV 1056R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in F minor for Harpsichord, BWV 1056. Next is the Concerto for oboe in F major, BWV 1053R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in E major for Harpsichord, BWV 1053. Then, we get the Concerto for oboe in D minor, BWV 1059R, a reconstruction based on a concerto fragment and Cantatas 35 and 156.

The Portland Baroque Orchestra play at a lively pace, yet they never sound frenetic (as some "historically oriented" orchestras can sound). Tempos always appear well chosen for the music, with good spring in the rhythms and suitably judged contrasts throughout. Equally important, Ruiz's playing is smooth and graceful (note particularly the famous Adagio in 1059R), the oboe sounding surprisingly rich and mellow considering it's a period instrument. I was a little afraid it might sound coarse or raspy compared to a modern oboe, but not so. Perhaps Ruiz's mellifluous playing and his careful reed construction have a lot to do with the pleasing results.

Gonzalo Ruiz
After those three items we come to the Concerto for oboe d'amore in A major, BWV 1055R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in A major for Harpsichord, BWV 1055. The oboe d'amore ("oboe of love") is a little larger than a standard oboe, its sound a little fuller and deeper. It conveys a sweetly romantic tone, especially in the slow Larghetto movement, with Ruiz nudging it along lovingly.

The program's penultimate work is the real highlight of the show, the Concerto for Violin and oboe in C minor, BWV 1060R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in C minor for Two Harpsichords, BWV 1060. Here, Ms. Huggett joins Ruiz on violin. The interweaving of the two instruments is delightfully affecting, the violin taking the more active part in the fast first and third movements, the oboe handling the more lyrical accompaniment. The oboe comes into its own in the central Adagio, where Ruiz's playing is totally charming.

The program ends with the little Aria from Cantata 51, transcribed for oboe. It offers a fitting conclusion, with Ruiz making the oboe sing in heavenly voice.

Producers Thomas Cirillo, Gonzalo X. Ruiz, and Stephen Schultz and engineer Roderick Evenson recorded the music at St. Anne's Chapel, Marylhurst University, Marylhurst, Oregon in October 2013. Various of the pieces use different instrumentation, some producing a fuller, more robust sound than others; but in every case the sonics are nicely spacious, warm, and open, the ambient environment of the recording venue pleasantly in evidence, yet without drowning out the orchestra in reverberation. Instead, the sound is fully dimensional, with a good sense of depth and breadth and plenty of air around the instruments. Detailing and definition also appear quite good, as do dynamics and frequency range. While the dynamics aren't exceptionally wide, they are appropriate to the occasion. This is a natural-sounding recording that makes listening a pleasure.


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

Dec 21, 2014

Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano (CD review)

Also, Grieg: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3; Dvorak: Romantic Pieces. Renaud Capucon, violin; Khatia Buniatishvili, piano. Erato 08256 462501 8 9.

French violinist Renaud Capucon and Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili are two relatively young and enormously talented musicians who make beautiful music together on this disc of violin sonatas from Franck, Grieg, and Dvorak. It's really quite a lovely album, the partnership of the two players producing some delightful results.

Things begin with the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major by French composer, pianist, and organist Cesar Franck (1822-1890). Franck wrote the Sonata in his later years, 1886, dedicating it to his friend, violinist Eugene Ysaye, as a wedding gift. The four movements of the piece follow a slow-fast-slow-fast structure, with the slow sections the most memorable for me. They are sublime, and Capucon's solos are wonderfully lyrical and soaring. Ms. Buniatishvili's accompaniment, especially in the faster segments, is virtuosic, too, and they make the music come alive in contrasting contemplative and vigorous moods. Beautifully done.

Capucon and Buniatishvili
Next up is the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in C minor by Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). He wrote it in 1887, some twenty years after writing his first two violin sonatas. It would be his last completed chamber work. Flawless intonation from Capucon and nuanced passage work from Buniatishvili highlight the work. After the peace and serenity of the opening Franck music, the Grieg sounds more dramatic, at least in the beginning. In fact, it's almost startlingly dramatic at this point, with the performers playing up the difference for all it's worth. But then they settle into Grieg's more sensitive and melodic material, and the music takes a daring turn into the rhapsodic. The second of the three movements is most songlike, with the violin singing its part in spirited fashion. The soloists take turns expressing the work's varied passions, the finale sounding as close to a traditional folk melody as Grieg would get.

The final item on the program is the four-movement suite called Romantic Pieces, written in 1887 by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). Dvorak's four little compositions sound sweetly evocative under the guidance of Capucon and Buniatishvili, who again work wonderfully together, complementing each other's every note. Again I found the slower movements most to my liking, the performers infusing the music with a sublime attractiveness that is downright impossible to resist.

Producer Michael Fine and engineer Jin Choi recorded the album at Auditorium Campra, Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, Aix-en-Provence, France in April 2014. The two performers are playing on a large stage, miked at a moderate distance. The space is just enough to provide a strong presentation with good detail yet admit a pleasant degree of reflective hall ambience as well. The sound is smooth, warm, resonant, and mildly rounded, both artists showing to advantage in a natural-sounding acoustic.


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

Dec 18, 2014

Ravel: Bolero (UltraHD review)

Also, Loussier: Nympheas. Jacques Loussier Trio. FIM LIM UHD 079 LE.

Quick: Is it classical jazz or jazzy classical?

That's the question listeners have been asking of the Jacques Loussier Trio for the past fifty-odd years. Loussier and his jazzmen have been bringing us their renditions of popular classical tunes for a long time. Combining classical and jazz in really good recordings, they have also long been an audiophile's delight. The jazz ensemble has done Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Handel, Mozart, Ravel, Satie, Vivaldi, Schumann, you name it, and they've sold a ton of albums over the years. If you like what they do, this is another album that will please their fans, the disc sounding better than ever in its new remastering.

Pianist Jacques Loussier has worked with several different trio partners in his time. The present album lists the lineup here as Loussier on piano, Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac on bass, and Andre Arpino on drums. Loussier made the Bolero album for Telarc in 1999, and FIM (First Impression Music) and LIM (Lasting Impression Music) remastered it to audiophile standards in 2014 using their UltraHD and PureFlection technologies. With a warhorse like Bolero and a coupling of Loussier's own creation, though, this one may be toss-up for many listeners. But, then, there's the sound, about which there is little question: Audiophiles may want it for demo purposes alone.

Anyway, the program begins with a jazzy take on Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). After initially writing a part of it for piano, the composer asked a friend asked to listen to it, saying "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." Most recordings of it last between twelve and eighteen minutes, the score indicating a Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"), and the composer preferred it taken fairly slow and steady. In a 1931 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ravel went so far as to say the piece lasts seventeen minutes. He would even criticize conductors (like Toscanini) who took it too fast or conductors who sped up toward the end. I mention this because Loussier and his pals take it at just a few seconds over seventeen minutes.

Not that Loussier's rendition actually sounds a lot like the orchestral version Ravel envisioned or even the solo or two-piano arrangements of it. Still, that's OK; Bolero apparently has more uses in it than a Swiss Army Knife. Loussier's arrangement maintains Ravel's rhythms while seemingly improvising on the melody in new and, well, jazzy ways. So, yes, you still get the full flavor of Ravel's familiar number, and you get an all-new jazz rendering of it thrown in, with the cymbal and later the snare drum leading the way. It's like two for the price of one: Buy one, get one free. Remarkably, it's all highly musical and eminently listenable as well, thanks to the expert musicianship of the players.

Jacques Loussier
Coupled with Bolero is a seven-movement piece called Nympheas ("Water Lilies"), composed by Loussier himself. Loussier based the music on paintings by the French impressionist Claude Monet depicting Monet's flower garden at Giverny. It's important that the colors of the music at least somewhat remind us of the colors and nuances of the impressionistic paintings.

I found Loussier's Nympheas even the more compelling than his Bolero, perhaps because as good as Loussier's Bolero is, I've already heard it done enough different times in enough different ways to last a lifetime. With Nympheas we get a rich assortment of graceful lines, gentle beauty, and refreshing energy. The movements alternate a contemplative tranquility with a lively power, producing some fascinating and wholly engrossing results.

As usual for FIM/LIM, the disc comes packaged in a glossy, hard-cardboard fold-over case, the disc itself housed in a static-proof inner jacket, further enclosed in a bound paper sleeve, along with a twelve-page set of notes, text, and pictures.

Jacques Loussier and his ensemble originally recorded the album in 1998 for Telarc Records at Studio Grande Armee, Palais des Congre's, Paris. FIM/LIM producer Winston Ma and Five/Four Productions engineer Robert Friedrich remastered the album in 32-bit Ultra High Definition and PureFlection replication processing.

The clarity and definition on this disc are a joy to hear. Highs sound extremely well extended, clear and vibrant. Lows are appropriately robust. And midrange transparency is exemplary. Moreover, transient response is quick, the dynamic impact is solid, and the ambient hall resonance is lifelike. In essence, you have three musicians in the room with you, piano center, percussion right, bass very slightly left. Yet the stereo spread is not so great as to exaggerate the players' positions. They appear, in fact, well clustered between the speakers. As far as concerns FIM/LIM's remastering, the sound is clearer and more dynamic than ever, the aforementioned transparency all the more evident.


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

Dec 17, 2014

Copland: Appalachian Spring (CD review)

Also, Clarinet Concerto; Quiet City; Three Latin-American Sketches. Laura Arden, clarinet; Paul Gambill, Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 8.559069.

It must be something in the air in Nashville. A month or so before reviewing this disc about a decade ago, I sat down and listened to one of the most lively and sparkling renditions of West Side Story I'd ever heard, done by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Then I listened to the present Nashville recording, one of the best compilations of music by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) around, this time done by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. I don't know what's going on in Nashville, but I hope Naxos continues to record there for a while.

Maestro Paul Gambill's collection of Copland material with the Nashville ensemble focuses on the more contemplative side of the composer, although it opens with three short Latin-American Sketches (1972) that are quite colorful and done up in lively style. The main things, though, start with the Clarinet Concerto (1950), written expressly for Benny Goodman, who subsequently admitted he was afraid to play it, fearing he wasn't up to doing it justice; but he did play and record it, frequently. The piece takes up first in a surprisingly but beautifully melancholy, romantic mood and then lightens up, becomes playful and jazzy, and finally turns slightly Latin in mood. Gambill has the measure of it, and clarinetist Laura Arden is a charmer.

Copland wrote Quiet City (1940) for a play that never opened, but the composer salvaged a suite from it that in this recording sounds deeply felt, reflective of silent streets and hushed nighttimes in the city, apparently a period of day about which Copland had strong ties. Gambill and his players capture the mood nicely.

Paul Gambill
Then, the album ends with the composer's suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring (1944), where Copland's own notion of Americana meets the old Quaker tune "Simple Gifts." Interestingly, the booklet note says that it was Appalachian Spring "that made Copland the first American composer to win global recognition and popularity." I guess Gershwin didn't count, or Gottschalk or Joplin or Coleridge-Taylor or Chadwick or Sousa or MacDowell or Beach or Herbert or Ives or.... Whatever, Maestro Gambill handles the piece with an appropriate sweetness and repose.

The Nashville Chamber Orchestra plays all of this with faultless skill, if perhaps not doing it quite as deftly as Copland himself or Bernstein did in their Sony (Columbia) recordings or Tilson Thomas on RCA. Certainly, however, the Nashville ensemble plays with just as much sensitivity and enthusiasm, and that counts for a lot.

The recording, which Naxos released in 2002, sounds superbly balanced, the frequency range understandably not reaching down too far as these are essentially chamber pieces, after all. The clarity, left-to-right imaging, and overall tone of the sound, however, appear on a par with the best recordings the folks at Naxos have ever provided us. With over an hour of genuinely classic and classy music presented by a classy orchestra in classy sonics, the disc seems inspired.


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

Dec 15, 2014

Greene: Overtures (CD review)

Garry Clarke, Baroque Band. Cedille Records CDR 90000 152.

Maurice Greene. Maurice who? Maurice Greene. Oh.

Some of you may recognize the name of the English composer and organist Dr. Maurice Greene (1696-1755). I did not. I had to dig into the disc's booklet notes to find out more about him. Turns out, according to conductor Garry Clarke who wrote the notes, "he was one of the most important figures in English musical history in the 18th century. Yet he is little known today and his instrumental pieces are rarely performed." Indeed, I can attest to that.

Greene became organist at the Chapel Royal in 1727 and Professor of Music at Cambridge University in 1730. Then, in 1735 the Crown appointed him Master of the King's Musick. So, yes, he was an important guy back when.

Mostly, Greene composed choral music, verse anthems, oratorios, operas, and some keyboard music. Here, we get some of instrumental music, his Six Overtures in Seven Parts, written originally in 1745 in an arrangement "for harpsichord or spinet" and first published in 1750. Clarke tells us that they display a quintessential Englishness while recognizing the 'new' Italian style being imported" at the time. He further tells us "the overtures are charming and delightful, with whistleable melodies, easy harmony, and inventive counterpoint. They conjure up the charm of the English countryside and the frivolity of the English 18th century."

Certainly, Maestro Clarke and his ensemble, the Baroque Band, which he founded in 2007, do their best to conjure up delights. And they do so in a most elegant fashion. This is no Raggedy-Annie period orchestra but a rich, polished, finely tuned group of performers. In fact, if anything, they may appear too polished compared to some of the historically informed groups we've gotten used to over the last half century or so. Still, they are a joy to hear, and they do bring the music to life with liveliness and gusto.

The overtures, of course, are not really "overtures" as we think of them today; that is, they are not introductions to something else, as in opera overtures. Instead, these are Baroque overtures: miniature suites alternating fast and slow movements (in this case, three or four movements each). However, one could view the little opening movements as opera overtures in themselves, and they contain a good deal of buoyant charm.

Garry Clarke
Probably the most important aspect of Clarke's performances with Baroque Band, besides the enthusiastically elegant playing I alluded to earlier, is their ability to keep one listening. OK, much of this latter quality we have to attribute to the composer and his music, but you also know that Baroque music can sometimes become a bit wearying if there's too much of it repeated at the same time. I mean, no one is sure about just how the composer intended people to listen to his overtures: all at once or one or two at a time. I worried that I might find listening to all six at the same time something of a chore, my not being a dedicated Baroque fan. Nevertheless, every overture is significantly different from the others, some sounding like Bach, some like Handel or Vivaldi, but mostly sounding like Greene. So listening to them all at once (with only a brief break toward the middle for a quick snack) proved more fun, at least the way Clarke and company present them, than I anticipated.

In addition to the overtures, there are five more, very brief items: Pieces in C minor, A minor, and G minor from Lessons for the Harpsichord, and overtures to Phoebe and St. Cecilia. They are all lovely in their own way, with my own delight going out for the harpsichord.

Producer Jim Ginsburg and ace engineer Bill Maylone recorded the overtures in 2010-2014 at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois; at College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; and at Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio at 98.7 WFMT, Chicago, Illinois. To my ears, the sound is a trifle bright in the upper midrange, but it's extremely clear and well detailed. And for all I know, this slight forwardness may be exactly what the ensemble sounded like in the particular recording venues represented. In any case, played back at a realistic level, there is a wide stereo spread to the sound, good depth and dimensionality, a quick transient response, and pretty good frequency extension. A modest hall resonance adds a further degree of realism to the presentation.


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

Dec 14, 2014

Chopin: Études, Op. 10 and Op. 25 (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Symphonic Études. Valentina Lisitsa, piano. Decca 478 7697.

Once a teacher, always a teacher: I cannot help but begin this review with a definition of "étude," since that's what we've got here from Chopin and Schumann, and not everyone may understand what they are. My WordWeb dictionary tells us an étude is "a short composition for a solo instrument; intended as an exercise or to demonstrate technical virtuosity." Wikipedia takes it a step further, saying it's "a French word meaning study, an instrumental musical composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill. The tradition of writing études emerged in the early 19th century with the rapidly growing popularity of the piano."

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) composed two sets of études, Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837). They were probably the first such sets of études to gain a reputation in the piano repertory, and virtuoso pianists continue to play them today. They were quite unique for their time, and, certainly, they are not easy to play. Franz Liszt, to whom Chopin dedicated the Op. 10 études, was among the first pianists to play them successfully, and they've been giving pianists a hard time ever since. Not even the great Chopin interpreter Arthur Rubinstein thought his performances of them good enough to record in their entirety.

Which brings us to Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who makes Chopin's études look easy. Ms. Lisitsa launched her career via social media a few years back with YouTube videos that became quite the rave of the music world. These days, she's been working a lot with violinist Hilary Hahn and recording for one of the biggest and oldest record companies in the world, Decca, so obviously talent will out. Her Chopin études are among the finest I've heard. Yet taste differs, and other listeners may find her manner too precise, relying more on technical skill and less on heart. Whatever, the Chopin fan may want to sample Lisitsa's études.

Ms. Lisitsa's playing is a marvel of exactness, and she swirls through the finger work with a commanding ease. Yet there is much elegance and refinement in her interpretations as well. If I had any minor reservation, it's that she does take some of these little études at a quicker pace than most other pianists do. While this leads to some thrilling moments, to be sure, some jaw-dropping dazzle, I'm not sure it expresses all of the softer, inner emotions these pieces have to offer. As I say minor; Ms. Lisitsa's showmanship should easily carry the day and win over most listeners.

Valentina Lisitsa
Favorites? To be honest, even though I love Chopin, the études are not among my favorite Chopin works. Nevertheless, for me, the highlights of Ms. Lisitsa's disc include Nos. 1, 3, 6, 11, and 12 in Op. 10, all of them models of culture and sophistication; and Nos. 1, 2, 8, 9, and 11 of Op. 25 for their thoughtfulness and lyrical beauty. But, then, these are, as I say, just personal favorites that Ms. Lisitsa carries off with consummate ease.

In addition to Chopin's two sets of études, we get the Symphonic Études, Op. 13, including the five supplementary variations, of Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Schumann's études are even briefer than Chopin's, most of them lasting no more than a minute or so each, but they are no less difficult. As tests of a pianist's virtuosic skills, Schumann's pieces work perfectly. Yet it isn't easy to make each stand on its own merits. Ms. Lisitsa does a splendid job individualizing the works and investing each of them with an appropriate zest and vigor. No disappointments here, either.

I suppose when it comes down to it, one has to decide how many versions of Chopin's or Schumann's études one needs and whether Ms. Lisitsa's renditions are enough better or enough different than all the rest to warrant a purchase. After all, there are already fine recordings from Pollini (DG), Perahia (Sony), Andsnes (Virgin), Ashkenazy (Decca), Lugansky (Naxos), and others available, some of which one probably already has. I can only tell you that Ms. Lisitsa's performances and Decca's sound would not be out of place among the best of them.

Producer, engineer, and tape editor Andrew Mellor recorded the music at the Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany in June 2014. The sound captures the piano pretty accurately, with a modest distance involved. It's clear and clean, a trifle hard in the upper registers but probably accurate. I'd say it's the kind of sound that reflects well the precision of Ms. Lisitsa's style.

Incidentally, the running time of the album is a little over eighty-five minutes, which may be some kind of record for compact discs. I've been collecting and reviewing CD's since the early Eighties when Sony and Philips jointly introduced them in the U.S., and I don't think I've ever found one until now with a playing time as long as this disc. Remarkable.


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

Dec 11, 2014

Cole Porter in Hollywood (CD review)

John Wilson, The John Wilson Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646276806.

The last time I visited a recording by John Wilson and his orchestra, they were doing the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and they were doing a splendid job of it. Apparently, there is still an audience for agreeable, popular old tunes, which The John Wilson Orchestra exploits to good effect.

For those of you who may not be familiar with British orchestral conductor John Wilson and his ensemble, Wilson formed the group in 1994. It is both a symphonic orchestra and a big jazz band, most often performing the original arrangements of older stage and screen music. They have performed annually at the BBC Proms summer festival since 2009 and become quite a success with their albums as well.

On the present disc, Wilson tackles some of Cole Porter's most-famous songs from Hollywood movies. He includes only fifteen numbers on a CD that could have held another half dozen or so, but who's complaining. Wilson's orchestra, comprising nearly seventy members, shares the spotlight with vocalists Anna-Jane Casey, Kim Criswell, Matthew Ford, Sarah Fox, Richard Morrison, and additional support from Maida Vale Singers Katie Birtill, Mary Carewe, Yona Dunsford, Emma Louise Kershaw, and Lance Ellington. This is no small production.

Admittedly, the music of Cole Porter, like that of another songwriter who wrote a ton of great stuff, Irving Berlin, has gone out of style since young people became the primary pop-music audience many years ago. Still, Porter's music shows up in revivals all the time, and in 2011 Woody Allen featured it in his romantic-fantasy Midnight in Paris. And then there are orchestras like John Wilson's that specialize in older material and prove there's still interest in old tunes. After all, good music is good music. Plus, John Wilson tries to get it right: no modernizing, no stylizing, no retrofitting for a young, hip, contemporary audience. He uses as close to the orchestrations the composers intended as possible, and the music sounds all the better for it.

John Wilson
Anyway, things start with a big number called "Stereophonic Sound" from the 1955 stage musical and 1957 movie Silk Stockings, Wilson's version with Matthew Ford and Anna-Jane Casey providing the vocals. Like most Porter songs, it's clever, witty, and catchy, with Wilson and his team ensuring it's as zippy as ever. It was good to hear Wilson start off the program with something a little out of the ordinary instead of just picking all-time favorite Porter songs. Both the orchestra and soloists do their most to keep everything at a highly energetic level. What's more, it helps that everyone involved is so talented. They're all a delight to hear.

Then we get an even more-famous selection, "Begin the Beguine," a tune that started life rather inauspiciously on stage in 1935, got a jazzy kick from Artie Shaw shortly afterwards, and really took off a few years later in the film Broadway Melody of 1940. Neither of the first two items on the program make us forget Fred Astaire, who starred in both films, but they do remind us what good songs they are. Katie Birtell, Mary Carewe, Yona Dunsford, and Emma Louise Kershaw capably handle the vocals. Wilson's version is quite up-tempo and delightful; you hear none of the syrupy, romantic overtones the tune took on with age.

And so it goes, every song attractive and engaging. Favorites? Sure. I enjoyed "Love of My Life," the Judy Garland number from The Pirate, here sung beautifully by Kim Criswell. Other favorites include the lovely "From This Moment On"; the splendidly tongue-in-cheek "Wunderbar"; the high-spirited Overture to High Society; the amusingly sultry "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"; the touchingly melancholy "It's All Right with Me"; the inventively funny "Let's Do It"; and then "Les Girls," with Matthew Ford sounding remarkably like Gene Kelly.

Producer Tom Croxon and engineer Jonathan Allen recorded the music at No. 2 Studio, Abbey Road, and Angel Studios, London in May 2014. The sound is more typical of a pop album than a classical one, which is appropriate since this is a pop album, after all; however, it doesn't make me particularly happy because I'd rather have heard something a little more natural. Instead, the album pretty much hits you in the face with its sonics, the vocalists miked very close, the orchestra appearing flat and hard, the overall sound slightly forward and bright. Yes, it sounds detailed and revealing; no, it is not very realistic in terms of making the listener believe he or she is in front of a live orchestra. It's all studio multi-miking, with highlighting and spotlighting the order of the day. Still, its clarity and impact should please most listeners of this type of music, and I suppose that's the main thing.


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

Dec 10, 2014

Gliere: Symphony No. 3 "Il'ya Murometz" (CD review)

Leon Botstein, London Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80609.

It's good to see a company pushing the sonic envelope, you know? It seemed there was a time that whenever I reviewed a new Telarc disc, the company always seemed to be doing just that, pushing the envelope. Not that I always heard much difference in sound for all their innovation, but in audiophile land I guess that's beside the point. Anyway, with this Gliere recording from 2002, they used Sony/Philips's then-new DSD recording system, Direct Stream Digital, which the two record companies introduced in 1999 for Super Audio CD's and which the companies asserted was better than sliced bread. More on the disc's sound in a minute. Let's talk about the music.

Russian composer (born in Ukraine) Rienhold Gliere (1875-1956), perhaps best known for his 1927 ballet The Red Poppy, wrote his massive Third Symphony some sixteen years earlier, but he had already attained a remarkable maturity, if not creativity. Gliere was one of those guys who took little heed of the Russian Revolution and fit right in with the new Stalinist regime that followed, being a rather conservative fellow by nature. His Third Symphony shows it. While much of the musical world was following the sweeping changes of Stravinsky, Gliere was content to do blends of Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Not to worry. The composer crammed his Third Symphony (subtitled "Il'ya Murometz" after a Russian folk hero) with charming, if sometimes repetitious bits and pieces of older tunes, legends, folk songs, and such, filling out over seventy-two minutes of music making on the present recording. And herein lies one of the problems with Maestro Leon Botstein's interpretation, which I tended to like better the first time I heard than during subsequent visits. Botstein takes things at a rather fast clip, you see, maybe losing a little something (or a big something, depending on your point of view) along the way, especially in terms of atmosphere. By comparison, conductors Harold Farberman and Edward Downes on their respective discs take the music at a more comfortable gait and they seem to do the music more justice in the process. This is not a piece of music I return to often, but when I have returned, I've found Farberman and Downes more accommodating. On the other hand, I heard JoAnne Falletta's recording not too long ago, and she also does justice to the score in a performance almost as fast as Botstein's. Maybe because hers is a little more exciting than Botstein's, though, is why I like it.

Anyway, the four movements that comprise the symphonic story are really miniature tone poems that tell episodes in the life of the hero, much as we observe in Gliere's older compatriot Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. The extended first movement of the Third Symphony ("Wandering Pilgrims," over twenty minutes even by Botstein's standards)--quiet and still at the beginning before rising to a persuasive climax--tells of Il'ya's introduction to the world of mighty heroes after sitting on a stove all his life (don't ask). The second movement, an Andante of equally prodigious length, tells of the hero's adventures with Solovei, a brigand. The third movement, a relatively short Scherzo, continues Il'ya's exploits "At the Court of Vladimir the Mighty Sun." Then the work concludes with a long Finale (about as long as the first movement) that tells of the hero's death and petrification.

Although none of this is particularly thrilling, some of it is fun, having as it does its moments of light repose and scheduled moments of climactic grandeur. Maestro Leon Botstein and the London Symphony Orchestra present all of it in a certain staid, academic style, to be sure, yet with at least a modicum of fizz as well. The performance may be more than a tad zippy, yet it's also expressive and even expansive when it needs to be. Know, however, that Farberman and Downes capture a little more of the work's temperament and mood, while Falletta captures more of its excitement and adventure.

Leon Botstein
Bolstein and Telarc's major claim to fame is that they contend their version is the first recording of the complete, revised, 1911 score. How true that is, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that even at Botstein's speedy pace, the thing is long and seems to use practically every instrument known to exist in 1911.

As to the sound, Telarc offer the DSD sonics two ways, depending on which disc you buy: on a hybrid multichannel/two-channel SACD and on a regular two-channel CD to which I listened. On the CD, the sound is fine, but for all the world I could not tell why Telarc advertised it as so very revolutionary. The Telarc packaging claims the system is capable of sampling at 2.8224 MHz, resulting in a frequency response of 0 to over 100 kHz and a dynamic range in excess of 120 dB. Well, that's probably true; the DSD engineering no doubt can capture such a response. However, nothing like that comes across on the standard Red Book CD, and it's probably a good thing, too, because if it did reproduce 120 decibels of dynamic range, it could fry one's speakers, scorch one's furniture, and permanently damage one's ears. What this Telarc CD does do is appear somewhat soft and low in the beginning until you realize its initial output is a lot less than that of most CDs, so one has to crank up the volume. Naturally, there's always the suspense, then, of wondering if, in fact, you are actually going to get that advertised 120 dB and blow out your speaker cones; fortunately, it never happens. The loudest passages on this disc should not play havoc with anyone's system.

Whatever, I had no objection to the sound; it's all fairly realistic and represents a concert hall reasonably well. But I could never get over the feeling as I was listening to it that it every minute wanted to break loose from its confines, that it wasn't quite opening up the way it should. Nor did I find the bass particularly impressive as so many of Telarc's bass drums have impressed me in the past. Nor did I think the high end had the sheen necessary to set it apart from the ordinary. Oh, well. For comparison I played a couple of old EMI recordings of the London Symphony from the Seventies and found those recordings more revealing, with a wider stereo spread, greater stage depth, and more transparency. Not that they sounded more real, mind you, just more pleasing to my ear, which seems to me all one can hope for in a home music system unless the record companies have deluded one into believing that their home sound can truly reproduce the sound of a live concert hall, with or without five-point-one speakers. Let's just say the CD sound is OK, without all the hype, and that the SACD in multichannel might sound even better.

Despite my reservations, this is an interesting version of Gliere's Third Symphony. If one has any interest in the music at all, one should test Botstein's version along with those from other conductors like Downes (Chandos), Falletta (Naxos), and Farberman (Musical Concepts). Just remember that Telarc's use of DSD to record it may or may not be the final answer in audio reproduction, and in regular stereo the other discs sound pretty good, too.


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

Dec 8, 2014

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, original piano version; Night on Bare Mountain; Tchaikovsky: The Seasons. Alexander Warenberg, piano; Igor Markevitch, Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Brilliant Classics 94931 (2 CD set).

As you no doubt know, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 originally as a piano suite. He called his little tone poems "sound pictures," but they didn't catch on too well with the public. Years later, several people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded being the 1922 version we have here by French composer Maurice Ravel. The value of the present set, beyond a pretty good rendition of the orchestral arrangement, is having both the original piano version and the Ravel orchestration together, albeit on separate discs. The other two items, Night on Bare Mountain and Tchaikovsky's The Seasons are icing on the cake.

Anyway, the set begins with the Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, performed by Igor Markevitch and the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Mussorgsky based the various sections of the suite on his musical impressions of paintings by his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. The idea of the work is that one is wandering through a picture gallery viewing the paintings, which the composer recreates in music, going so far as to give us a musical number, the Promenade, to accompany our stroll from time to time.

I had never heard Markevitch's recording of Pictures before, but I had long admired the Maestro's work. So it didn't surprise me that I liked his interpretation as much as I did. There is more energy in this reading than in most other renditions, even among my favorites like Reiner (RCA), Muti (EMI), Ansermet (Decca), and Maazel (Telarc, LIM).

And it's not just that Markevitch takes each section at a fast clip; he invests each little tone picture with genuine personality, too. For instance, the "Promenades" are quick but unhurried excursions around the gallery; "The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" is merrily affectionate; "The Market" exhibits a wonderful feeling of busy scurrying about; and "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" conveys an appropriate sense of manic dread. In fact, it's only in the final segment, "The Great Gate of Kiev," that Markevitch begins to seem a little perfunctory, not quite capping off the proceedings in as grand a style as I might have liked. Nevertheless, that's not to say it's a dull ending, just not quite as emotion-packed as I'd have liked. Overall, this is a fine rendering of an old favorite.

The other selection on disc one is Mussorgsky's Night on Bare Mountain, here done in the familiar reorchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov. It's another musical picture that Mussorgsky wrote a few years before Pictures at an Exhibition, this earlier one depicting St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain; that is, a witches' Sabbath occurring on St. John's Eve, which the composer finished up on that very night, June 23, 1867. Whatever, Markevitch rips through the piece in short order, serving up most of the music's images in exciting fashion. It's not really as frightening as it could be, though, as the conductor seems more interested in producing thrills over developing much fear or suspense.

Igor Markevitch
Disc two offers us a pair of piano solos by pianist Alexander Warenberg. The first one is the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Warenberg's way with the Pictures is rather gentle, as though he were handling museum pieces with kid gloves. They sound lovely in their own way, but they don't always convey the emotions I associate with the music. Warenberg's interpretation possesses little of the vivid character I heard more recently as part of a recital by pianist James Brawn on MSR. Still, there's a certain piquant charm in Warenberg's more-cautious, laid-back readings, particularly in the "Hut" segment, where he finally comes alive. It doesn't stop him from a rather sedate rendition of the concluding "Gate," though.

The second item on disc two is The Seasons by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). It's a set of twelve relatively brief character pieces for solo piano that the composer wrote in 1875. I enjoyed Warenberg's Tchaikovsky more than I did his Mussorgsky. The pianist appears to be a most-sensitive soul, and his temperament seems to suit the nature of Tchaikovsky's music. It's lonely and melancholy, shining and enthusiastic by turns, nicely reflecting the moods of each of the months.

Markevitch made his Mussorgsky recording in 1973, releasing it originally on an Eterna LP. Warenberg recorded his piano version of the Mussorgsky plus the Tchaikovsky piece for Brilliant Classics in 2000; Brilliant Classics reissued them both on the present two-disc set in 2014. The sound in the orchestral numbers is vibrant, alive, rich, and resonant. It's also a tad brighter and more forward than one usually hears from the Gewandhaus Orchestra, which generally sounds a bit darker and more golden-hued than this. Nevertheless, the detail shines through admirably, and despite a slightly close miking arrangement there is plenty of orchestral depth. Additionally, you'll find a fairly wide dynamic range, reasonably strong impact, and a decent sense of hall ambience. The piano sound is lighter, more distant, quieter, and more rounded. It's more of a mild, easy listening sound than the orchestral material.


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

Dec 7, 2014

Royal Strings (UltraHD CD review)

Charles Rosekrans, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. LIM UHD 076 LE.

Back in 2001 when I reviewed the original Telarc recording of this remastered LIM (Lasting Impression Music from FIM, First Impression Music) disc, I said of it: "If this recording were any smoother, the listener would be in danger of slipping on the polished surface and breaking a leg." The late Charles Rosekrans, former director of the Westchester Hudson Opera, leads London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a collection of works arranged for string orchestra, the culmative effect of which is balmy in the extreme. The music includes familiar works like Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia" on Greensleeves, Dvorak's Moderato from the Serenade in E major, Albinoni's Adagio for Strings, Tchaikovsky's Waltz from the Serenade in C major, and several movements from quartets, quintets, and octets by Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Beethoven, all additionally arranged for string orchestra.

Maestro Rosekrans takes no chances and presents each piece in fairly straight-arrow fashion. Under Rosekrans, the music sounds laid back, relaxing, predictable, and often routine, yet Maestro Rosekrans offers it up in just the manner I would guess a majority of listeners prefer. This is an assembly of works for lovers of lush string sound, mainly, and cushy, comforting sonics. Devoted classical music fans and dedicated audiophiles may object; others undoubtedly won't, now that LIM have remastered it in even better sound. In other words, it sounds really nice, but Rosekrans may not present it as thoughtful or persuasively as some rival conductors have on other recordings.

Things begin with the Waltz from the Serenade in C major by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky. Under Rosekrans the Waltz flows along in a gentle, consistent manner, yet with little individual character. In other words, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it except that it sounds like every other interpretation of the music.

Next is the Fantasia on Greensleeves by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a performance that contains some beautiful violin work by Cleo Gould. I liked Rosekrans's rendering of this one a little more than his performance of the opening Tchaikovsky piece because he seems to invest it with greater feeling, and Gould's violin part soars wonderfully.

After that is the Moderato from the Serenade in D major by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. Rosekrans takes it at a fairly perfunctory tempo, with little change-up in contrast levels or nuances in phrasing. I can only describe the result as pleasingly routine.

Charles Rosekrans
Then, it's the Adagio for Strings, often attributed to the eighteenth-century Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni, but probably composed by the twentieth-century Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, who said he merely arranged Albinoni's work. Whatever, here we find the familiar orchestration for strings and organ, with violinist Cleo Gould again taking the lead. The organ is the real star of the show here, however, and audiophiles with really big subwoofers will doubtless take delight in it. Otherwise, Gould's violin stands out in an otherwise acceptable but hardly noteworthy rendition of the work.

In addition, we get Mendelssohn's Allegro moderato from the Octet in E-flat major, Beethoven's Presto from the Quartet in C-sharp minor, Schubert's Standchen from Schwanengesang, Brahms's Un poco Allegretto from the Quintet in G major, Purcell's Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas, and Beethoven's Lento assai from his Quartet in F major. Of these other pieces, I'd single out the Beethoven Presto for its energy and verve; the Schubert for its sweet spirit, conveyed nicely by Rosekrans; and the concluding Beethoven Lento for its graceful solemnity.

Telarc producer Andre Gauthier and recording engineer Robert Friedrich provided, as I said earlier, an ultrasmooth sound for the disc back in 2001, the kind that might lull one into submission but that one cannot really fault in any particular way. Now, LIM have remastered it, and it sounds better than ever. It sounds, in fact, like real music. What more could you want? (I hear some audiophile types now saying "I want more detail, more transparency, more energy, more dynamics, more "hi-fi"; but it's all a matter of degree; this is good couch-potato sound that will offend no one. Actually, it impressed me, and I thought it quite natural, especially now that LIM have gotten hold of it.)

LIM remastered the Telarc recording using their 32-bit Ultra HD processing, which is about the most-exacting method anyone has yet found to transfer the contents of a master tape to a standard Red Book CD. The new mastering adds a touch more clarity and impact to the sound, while making it appear even smoother than before. Note, however, that although I count this a blessing, other listeners may not appreciate yet more smoothness. There is also a wide stereo spread involved and a pleasant hall ambiance that further enhances the sound's lifelike qualities.

To sum up, as much as I enjoyed the sound, I can't say the overall character of the music impressed me as much. It was, as I say, a mite undernourished for my taste. I suppose if you already own the Telarc version of this recording and like it, the LIM remastering does improve upon its sonic qualities. Whether the improvement is worth the additional cost is another question that only the listener can answer.


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

Dec 4, 2014

1865 (SACD review)

Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War. Anonymous 4, with Bruce Molsky. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807549.

The year 1865 marked the end of the American Civil War. It was also smack dab in the middle of the Romantic period in art, literature, and music. Romanticism flowed through American pop culture as well, so on this disc of Civil War-era songs, expect to hear music infused with highly expressive, sensitive, personal, ofttimes sentimental overtones.

Most of the songs themselves, eighteen of them, appeared during the Civil War, and many of them remained popular for a long while after, a few continuing in familiarity to this day. The group singing them is Anonymous 4, an American female a cappella quartet who often specialize in early music, medieval to Renaissance. This album, like their album of spirituals, is kind of a departure for them, but a wonderfully inspiring one. Joining the quartet (Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Marsha Genensky) is two-time Grammy nominee Bruce Molsky on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and vocals. They make an impressive combination.

Now, before I utter another word, I have to issue a warning: Unless you have a heart of stone, you might find yourself shedding a tear or two. Usually, I'm immune to the hyperbole of PR agents to bias my opinion of things; in this case, Harmonia Mundi e-mailed me a sample song from the album, and it was all I needed to request the disc for review. The sample alone had me in tears. As I say, these are strongly moving tunes.

The vocals of Anonymous 4 are precise, articulate, and warmhearted; and the addition of the lower male voice complements their tonal and emotional qualities. They are an outstanding ensemble, gorgeous and heartfelt in their harmonies and presentation.

The opening song is "Weeping, Sad and Lonely," and it sets the mood, an a cappella number framed in five-part harmony. If it doesn't grab you from the outset, you'd have to be a rock.

"Darling Nelly Gray" adds Molsky's banjo to the arrangement, and it's effective in its simplicity. "Sweet Evelina" is, well, sweet, again sung a cappella, which after hearing it is the only way I could imagine anyone singing it. For changes of pace, "Bright Sunny South" and "Brother Green" feature Molsky singing alone, accompanying himself on banjo or fiddle, and "Camp Chase" with Molsky just on fiddle. Frankly, as nice as these are, I missed the ladies' voices.

On a few numbers we find solos, duets, and trios, and they work, too; however, I tended to prefer the quartet together with Molsky for their fuller body and sonority.

Then, there are the tunes we've come to know and love probably all our lives: "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground," "Aura Lee" (think Elvis), "Listen to the Mockingbird" (think Three Stooges), "Home, Sweet Home," "Abide with Me," "Shall We Gather at the River," and the like. But you may not have heard them done quite like this, in, as the notes say, "something close to their original settings." Beautiful.

Anonymous 4 
Absolute favorites on the program? Well, I suppose so: the aforementioned "Weeping, Sad and Lonely," "Darling Nelly Gray," "Sweet Evelina," "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground," "Abide with Me," and "Shall We Gather at the River," plus "Faded Coat of Blue" and "The Picture on the Wall."

To say these are simply "sad" songs or mournful dirges would be a shame. Yes, you'll find them filled with sentiment and feeling, yet they're so extremely individual and affecting they transcend any facile descriptions. They are wonderful old songs, wonderfully performed.

This is another one that easily takes its place among my favorite albums of the year.

The disc comes fastened to the inside of a sturdy Digipak case, and an eighty-four-page booklet of notes, history, lyrics, and pictures completes the package. Just be careful how you handle the booklet; mine began coming apart at the binding shortly after I opened it.

Producer Robina G. Young and engineer and editor Brad Michel recorded the music in hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD at the Concert Hall, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey in June 2014.  I listened to the two-channel SACD layer. The sound is clear and ultra clean, the voices rich and full, a mild room resonance adding a welcome note of realistic ambience to the affair. The voices appear well grouped, too, with the ladies often slightly to the left and Molsky's vocals slightly to their side. Occasionally, Molsky appears in the middle of the female voices. In any case, it's all quite lifelike.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa