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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa